When I was growing up the two top jobs that were promoted were lawyer and doctor. It was the perception of my parents and grandparents that if you became a lawyer or a doctor you would have a tremendous income and a great career. As the years went by some of this conventional wisdom turned out to be true (Doctors) and some, maybe not so much (Lawyers), but there is one thing they both have in common and that is the need for a license to engage in the practice of their discipline.
It’s not just doctors and lawyers, the concept of a license is common. You need a CDL to be a truck driver, and there are many others: funeral directors, deep sea welders, and you need a license to work with pest control chemicals. It’s not just the blue collar trades or medical. You need a license to sell real estate, or to provide financial planning.
But Professionals have these licenses, right? You mentioned doctor’s, lawyers, and even CPA’s and financial planners you are thinking as you read this.. But the answer is no. Generally a license is associated with a trade, a specific task or series of tasks. The physician goes room to room, diagnoses, a problem, prescribes a solution, and then moves on. The Certified pest control technician moves from house to house, diagnoses a problem, prescribes a solution, and then moves on. The Physician diagnosing juvenile diabetes in Florida makes significantly more than even a pest control guy in New York City but they are both just licensed techs.
The idea behind a license is fairly easy to comprehend. There are complex trades and we needed a way to make sure that people who were hired to do those tasks associated with those trades had been trained and were skilled enough to do those tasks. The earliest information I could find on licensing goes back to the middle ages and the concept of the Journeyman, a concept that is still around in today’s modern apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeship, to Journeyman (your official license to practice) to Master.
The stackable credential, or certification is a different beast altogether. The stackable credential has been built because of the ever growing dilution of the Bachelor’s degree and the desire for the purple squirrel. The BA (more so than the BS) is a credential, but they don’t really associate with a single task. This is by design, i’ve spoken with several educators in higher ed, and they all say the same thing. “We provide a foundation to build off of, we don’t provide a specific skill and then the student can go and specialize at the employer” Is it any wonder that there is a student loan crisis as so many Professional Individual Contributors get sucked into the Bachelor Black Hole? The Master’s degree in a specific discipline was supposed to be the solution for that but even a MA or MS is seeming to become a dead end that similar to the BA and it simply doesn’t count the way it should, or did a decade or more ago.
This is all well and good, a nice concept, except more and more employers require the specific combination of skills and are unwilling to pay for developing them internally, they want the skill ready at the point of hiring. So it doesn’t take too long before the PIC is forced to go and get cert’s that help drive them forward in their career. And when I say ‘drive them forward’ what I mean is ‘to keep their job’. As employers are always willing to ‘make tough decisions’ and ‘realign our resources’.
Bottom line is that generalization is out and specific is in. But we are Professional individual Contributors. As the years go by, as organizations ‘trim the fat’, more and more of us are given broader and broader responsibilities with less and less resources to do it. That is the nature of the role of the PIC. We all started with generalization.. I.e. the Bachelor’s.. But now we have to get to the exact mix of specifics, and we have to do that on our own. The key to the specifics is the stackable credential.
As we move forward with this dialog we need to identify a better way to define difference between a license and a stackable certification as they are often confused. What’s a stackable certification? By my definition it’s more of a specialization than it is a legal approval to practice a discipline. It’s a certification of knowledge that is providing what the college degree used to provide, but it’s more aligned to what employers now want. Project Management Professional is the quintessential stackable certification. It’s a piece of the puzzle but almost useless without some other extensive experience or another certification, say some Data Center Cert. The I.T. sector was the beginning of certs being more important than a degree, but this type of belief is spreading into other industries. It’s why more and more we are seeing odd groupings of letters after people’s names on their email signatures.
So summing this whole thing up…
The BA is out as a strong option. Organizations want to pay less and less, and they want to put more and more on the shoulders of the Professional Individual Contributor. When there are openings, there is a strong desire to find exactly what is needed, but not develop talent internally. This makes sense because you want someone who can do the job as effectively as possible because there is so much to do and little time or resources are put towards getting people up to speed for the future needs of the organization.
So what does this tell us? I think we need to look at the IT sector again.. The secret is to go and get certification after certification. The difference I think is that for Information Technology professionals, they can get away with cert on their resume that don’t specifically meet the need of the job, but may be of value because everything is so interrelated. For example a PMP who is applying for a software project manager position and has a JAVA software cert and a hardware networking cert won’t be excluded because of the hardware credential. Due to the interrelatedness of hardware and software, it may actually be seen as an asset.
I think it’s different with Professional Individual Contributors in other areas. Because Industries such as manufacturing, financial and human services, are looking for the person with the exact credentials that fit the job, if you have more or less, you may lose out on the opportunity. Your seen as potentially too expensive, or not skilled enough. In short the PIC always is challenged to find ‘just right’. To that end, PIC’s need to have lots of certifications but be judicious in how they present their skills on resumes. This can get really tricky in the world of professional social media. How do you know what to put on your Linked In? It’s another great challenge for the professional: How do you only show the specialties you want to the target audience you want to show it to? In the days of the paper resume or online application it was easy, just edit in the extent of the information you want to share. It’s not so easy in the age of online bio’s.
No matter how we deal with the communication issues, the reality of the need for stacking credentials showing ever more nuanced specialization for jobs with broad scope is here and not going away anytime soon. It’s one more in a long list of continuing complexities for the professional individual contributor workforce.
It makes me think: If this blog ever gets big enough where I’m hiring someone, I wonder which certifications I’d want in a PIC I would hire. Although I’m sure the mix I would need, doesn’t exist.. Or Does It?