The Narrow LadderThe Value of Industry Certifications in the Job Market
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Choosing a college major is a high-stakes decision. Students need to consider one of the biggest risks facing any graduate: underemployment.
In theory, industry certifications ought to be a key element in addressing the skills gap in the job market—yet in practice, they still fall short of their potential. How do employers use these credentials in their hiring process today? What would make certifications more valuable in the job market?
In this report, Burning Glass Technologies seeks to bring clarity to the debate by using job posting data to examine the market value of industry certifications. Using our database of more than 700 million historical job postings, we are able to track how often employers explicitly ask for these credentials, and in what context.
Job postings give us a clearer picture of how much – and where – certifications matter in the real world of the labor market. After all, since most job postings don’t require these credentials, it likely means something when employers do ask for them. Recent research demonstrates that employers are, if anything, becoming more specific about the skills they require in job posts.
We focus solely on industry certifications in this report, not certificates. We also exclude licenses (either where explicitly requested or where they can be inferred occupationally, such as those in licensed health care and legal professions). Those markets have their own distinct dynamics.
Key Findings on Certifications
• The impact of these credentials is potent but narrow, with employer demand confined to a handful of certifications. In fact, the top 50 certifications account for two-thirds of all requests in job postings.
• In career fields that value these credentials, they carry a significant salary premium (as much as 18% in our sample).
• Certifications fall into two broad categories, each with its own distinct impact: Door Openers, which help new labor market entrants enter a field; and Career Escalators, which pave the path for experienced workers’ upward mobility
• Certifications are most likely to gain market acceptance when they validate hard-to-fill skills or readiness for hard-to-fill jobs, thereby providing a signaling mechanism in markets where employers have struggled to find qualified talent.
• While certifications struggle to gain acceptance in many corners of the job market, we find that, in others, there are indications of under-supply – that is, occupations for which employers struggle to fill jobs despite routinely seeking certificated workers.
• Across sectors, there are particular occupations which show signs of being ripe for broader adoption of certification regimes.
• Even though employers struggle to find workers with adequate foundational or “soft” skills, these skill areas have resisted certification, likely because there is no common agreement on how to define or measure them or because such skills are best assessed within the context of a particular occupation rather than in isolation.
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