Realizing a High-Skilled America: Why Assessment and Certification Should Be More Role-Relevant

Certification is a professional badge. It offers proof of ability and aptitude. And it needs to become much more commonplace in a highly competitive global economy.

By Jack Gibson

Global jobless figures continue to reveal a deepening of the crisis plaguing employers in every town around the globe. A paradox between numbers of unemployed and difficulty in recruiting talent is here for a generation. And while widespread unemployment and the need to upskill populations has been widely reported, one vital ingredient is absent from the discussion: role-relevant assessment and certification.

The context is bleak: The world’s jobless population rose by 4 million in 2012 to 197 million, a figure set to increase by 8.1 million by 2014 (http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---publ/do...). However, last year approximately half of U.S employers struggled to fill jobs—compared to just 14 percent in 2010 (http://press.manpower.com/press/2012/talent-shortage/)—with skilled trades, engineers, and IT staff in short supply.         

With so many people available for work but lacking the right skills or experience to perform, governments have been backing various schemes such as vocational training; educators are devising new programs to upskill the unemployed; and technologists are providing greater innovations with more blended and mobile learning. Yet the solution begins—not ends—with training.       

Certification as a Hiring Tool

Certification is a professional badge. It offers proof of ability and aptitude. And it needs to become much more commonplace in a highly competitive global economy. Certification achieved through assessment can identify the right candidates during higher education applications; specific skill sets in a given industry; individuals best suited for vacant posts; and now even the possibility of knowledge assessment by massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Don Wagner, senior vice president of Business Development for Pearson VUE, draws a parallel with the IT industry when looking at the skills strategies in other professions. “IT certifications long have proved successful, mainly because they are designed to not only assess a specific set of role-relevant skills so employers can be confident in their level of competency, but they also provide a career pathway allowing a candidate to move from junior to high-skilled with validation at every step.”

In fact, IBM’s 2010 white paper found that 7 out of 10 IT employers felt that certification led to increase in customer service and team performance.

IT certifications also prove to be vital tools when hiring. The CompTIA Employer Perception of IT Training and Certification 2011 study found that almost 9 out of 10 hiring managers saw IT certifications as a high or medium priority in the candidate evaluation process. While Wagner accepts that IT differs from other industries, the principle of validating knowledge and skills and ensuring confidence in ability is the same.
Certifications in spoken English have increased 250 percent in Japan—with noticeable impact on English business speaking. Almost half of employers now are reported to demand business English, compared to 19 percent in 2009 (Recruit Agent Japan).

There is arguably no more important sector than health care, where validation of skills can mean the difference between life and death. Through a survey of 3,000 nurses and managers, the American Board of Nursing Specialties found that certification was highly valued not just by certified nurses, but non-certified nurses, certified managers, and non-nursing managers. Nurses in the U.S. first must obtain a license to practice but often will seek additional certification in nursing specialties to further showcase their skills. The survey revealed that the driving force for certification wasn’t salary; it was the recognition, respect, and confidence in their ability from peers and, crucially, patients. It is these factors that are the ultimate argument for accreditation in the workplace—dispelling the myth that if staff get certified they’re going to leave.

Wagner adds that “a growing number of employers are leveraging certifications as a way to signal their own organization-wide competencies to customers.”

Testing Is Key

The uptake of psychometric services—essentially, the science and measurement of testing—is ever more critical. Certification testing is not just about coming up with a bunch of questions to create a test. Wagner argues that the combination of more assessment and certification with statistically valid tests is what will make the real impact on high-skills needs.

“One of the challenges globally is educating industries on the importance of psychometrics in developing a valid, reliable, and fair test. If you want to be confident you’re testing a future nurse or doctor for their competency, you have to write questions in a statistically measurable way. High-stakes programs upon which entire careers can hinge that are not statistically valid serve little to no purpose.”

Roles Increasingly Difficult to Fill

The longer industries wait to develop the right assessment certification program, the more difficulty they will have in finding the right qualified talent. Globally, the most difficult roles to fill are in skilled trades, engineering, and IT. Interestingly, there is a correlation between the value Europe places on certification and the fact that 14 of its nations—including France, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Ireland, and the UK—find it easier to fill positions compared to the global average. However, despiteproducing 90,000 science, technical, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates each year, the UK will need 830,000 new science, engineering, and technology (SET) professionals and 450,000 SET technicians by 2020 (http://www.theengineer.co.uk/policy-and-business/report-reveals-scale-of...).

As with any global crisis, the severity varies across industries and regions. Over the next two decades, China will be replaced by India and other developing nations as the leading source of new workers in the global market. But—and here’s that paradox again—China could end up with 23 million fewer workers than required by 2020 (McKinsey Global Institute 2012).

“It’s not about simply training and certifying people for the sake of it, but tailoring training and certification to help fill specific jobs,” Wagner notes. “To make sure positions are filled by the right people, and for the long term, we need to provide more opportunities to the low skilled and those beginning their careers. Test owners have a key role, and also an opportunity to raise standards. By growing their programs, they can partner with employers to develop specific solutions and ongoing certification. They also can become more efficient, reducing the number of non-certified training programs that are not industry recognized.”

So, as the global skills crisis deepens, the value of certification heightens in the battle to puncture the professions paradox.

Jack Gibson was formerly a PR executive at Pearson VUE (www.pearsonvue.com), a global leader in computer-based testing for information technology, academic, government, and professional testing programs around the world. Pearson VUE provides a full suite of services from test development to data management, and delivers exams through a comprehensive and secure network of test centers in more than 175 countries.

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