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Boost Your Career With Credentials — Here’s How to Pick the Right Ones

If it seems like every college, company and website wants to offer you a credential, it’s not just your imagination.

Credential Engine has compiled data on approximately 4,800 credentials (including degrees, badges, licenses, certificates, microcredentials, diplomas, certifications and apprenticeships) since it publicly launched its free credential registry at the end of 2017, according to Carrie Samson, the company’s communications manager.

Credentials can cover a broad range of achievements, whether it’s a Master of Science in Nursing, Microsoft certification in Python programming or a Wine Tasting Essentials Badge.

And those credentials are just the start for what the registry plans to include.

There are at least 334,114 unique credentials in the U.S.,” Samson says. “We anticipate that [the actual number exceeds] 500,000.”

With that many credentials out there, surely you should gather as many as you can to load up your resume, right?

Not so fast, says Emily Rimland, co-author of the study “Employer Perceptions of Critical Information Literacy Skills and Digital Badges.”

“What we found in that research was, on average, employers were willing to look at four [badges],” Rimland says. “Employers are saying, ‘We’re willing to look at these, but… they have to have value.’”

So how do you determine which badges, certificates and other credentials are worth your time and money? We asked employment experts for their advice about which credentials are best for helping you land your next job or to advance your career.

What Are Credentials?

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“Credentials” is an all-encompassing term that covers any type of learning that results in an achievement. Here’s a brief overview of some of the more popular ones, as explained by Roy Swift, Ph.D. and executive director of Workcred, during a Future of Work seminar in St. Petersburg, Florida:

Degrees: Educational institutions like colleges and universities issue degrees that range from an associate’s through doctoral degree. Example: Bachelor of Science in Engineering

Licenses: Government agencies regulate licensure, often through state agencies, which generally require renewal. Example: Electrician

Certificates: Training providers offer short-term programs (usually less than two years) that end with an exam. If you pass, you receive a certificate that does not require renewal. Example: Certificate Program in Surgical Technology.

Certifications: Certifications differ from certificates in their assessment processes as well as expiration dates. Industry-certified bodies issue certifications following a competency assessment that requires recertification within an assigned time period. Example: AWS Certified Welder.

Badges: Badges (specifically, digital badges) are relatively new to the credential world. They can be issued by learning institutions, industries and private companies. Requirements vary greatly — you can earn a badge in a couple hours or it can take months to train in the various modules required to achieve a badge. Example: Salesforce Super Badges.

Why Use a Credential?

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In a labor market where jobs outnumber job seekers, more companies are considering alternatives to bachelor’s degrees. Expanding the talent pool allows them to tap middle-skill workers who have more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree, which can make a badge or certificate that much more valuable.

In fact, “good” middle-skill jobs — defined as ones that pay at least $35,000 a year for workers 25 to 44 years old — have increased by 3.5 million from 1991 to 2016, according to Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Compare that to a decrease of 1.8 million high school-level jobs and an increase of 18.2 million jobs for those with bachelor’s degree or higher.

With employers scrambling to fill open positions, an applicant’s credential could be the key to getting noticed, according to Tim Gates, senior regional vice president at Adecco Staffing.

They’re looking for reasons to hire candidates,” Gates says. “So if they see anything that’s relevant to their industry, to their company, to the specific position, it’s definitely going to help to make that candidate more attractive.”

Even if you have a degree or a career, additional credentials can make you more marketable within your field or company. Freelancers looking for ways to increase their rankings or sales, for example, can earn badges via Fiverr online courses.

And if you’re currently unemployed, gathering additional credentials can help when it comes time to explain an employment gap.

“That’s a great way to justify if you’ve been out of work for three months or four months,” Gates says. “If you can say, ‘Hey, I utilized that time to get this certificate or supplement my skills,’ it’s a great way to explain it.”

How to Compare Credentials

Deciding whether to use credentials may be easy enough, but deciding which credentials to use requires a little more work.

If you have a career already in mind, you can begin researching which credentials are applicable for your field at the U.S. Labor Department’s My Next Move. The site allows you to browse by industry or interests to discover recommended training.

And the best place to start looking for that training is within the industry, according to Swift.

“Find out what professional organizations seem to have the majority of the people in that industry, and do they provide any certificates or certifications,” Swift says. “They should look at the membership — if they don’t see the mainstream companies or organizations associated with that professional society, then they should be leery.”

For skills that are not specific to an industry, such as Excel mastery or leadership training, Gates recommends checking out free classes at community colleges and online training that offer digital badges — so long as they create a cohesive message about your skill set.

“How do they all link up together?” Gates asks. “You could have a variety of badges, but combined they might be more attractive within your field.”

Badges that are hierarchical — meaning, you must earn an entry-level badge before you progress to the next one — can demonstrate advanced understanding of a subject, according to Rimland.

Once you collect the top level, you can include just one streamlined badge on your resume but also include the various steps you took to attain it.

“Not only can they say, ‘I have a badge in leadership,’ but if they wanted to, they can share the badge and all the metadata behind it,” says Rimland, who helped create Information Literacy Badges for Penn State. “So the employer can actually take a look at what they had to do to earn that badge.”  

Where to Include Credentials

Gates suggests that although including your credentials on a resume helps, networking sites like LinkedIn can provide the space for you to explain a credential and its relevance.

“[LinkedIn] is more of a biography than a resume,” Gates says. “So the way you would incorporate badges or certifications into your previous experience and how they were utilized — there’s a little bit more of an opportunity.

“And with recruiters or talent acquisition managers that are scanning through profiles — that might be just the thing that makes somebody pause for a second.”

However, that doesn’t mean you should do a credential dump. Swift points out that overloading a resume or LinkedIn profile with too many credentials can lead employers to question the value of any of the credentials.

“You need to put your credentials on that are specific to the competencies as described by the job vacancy — they should be very specific,” Swift says. “When everyone puts all those letters out there, it dilutes it.”

Sites like Credential Engine hope to enable more transparency in education and the workforce so any employer or job seeker can instantly identify the value of a credential, according to Samson.

That transparency will be vital as the pathways to a good career, and the jobs themselves, evolve.

“As a job seeker or a student trying to figure out a career path, there are a lot of different ways to reach your career goals… and not all of them are linear,” Samson says. “We believe that credential transparency is going to be an incredibly important part of that success.”

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She covers benefits, invisible jobs and work-from-home opportunities. Read her bio here or catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln. She’s sorry to report that you did not earn any badges by reading this article, but she appreciates that you made it this far.

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