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The Rise of Online Certification

January 26, 2000

By
Mike Russiello

Introduction

Certifications have become a popular tool for professionals in many fields, such as information technology, finance, and health care, to make their skills stand out to employers. Few would argue that certification is a win-win concept that helps both job seekers earn their true value and helps corporations find the talent they need.

In the last decade, the standard practice for having your skills certified was to go to a bricks-and-mortar testing center, pay the fee, and take one or more tests. However, online certifications have emerged as a convenient, fast, and low-cost alternative to this process that delivers unique benefits to job seekers and employers. In this white paper, we will explore the benefits of this new process, and show how it is becoming the dominant method for representing your skills to employers.

The importance of online certifications is tied to the e-transformation of the employment marketplace. We'll first take a brief look at this phenomenon, and then explore how it dovetails with skills and online certification.

The dominance of e-recruiting

The Internet is transforming the employment marketplace and making it more like a financial market. Transaction volume is up, as people change jobs more frequently in the new employment paradigm. The time per transaction (i.e. hiring cycle) is getting shorter and shorter.

This increased "velocity" in the talent market is fueled by frightening workforce demographic forecasts that predict severe shortages in many occupations over the next decade. In response, corporations and governments alike are encouraging professionals to change jobs frequently through aggressive advertising programs and by dismantling various barriers to job-hopping. The ultimate result is more efficient use of the existing talent pool by allowing that talent to move to where ever it' s most needed (and valued) at any given time.

The intense need for qualified staff is the fuel behind the e-recruiting revolution. We are fortunate that technology is available to enable the employment market to realize the efficiencies needed for the survival and continued growth of many developed economies. Without the advances in job matching made possible by information technology, the workforce shortages so prevalent in the industrialized economies would be impossible to overcome.

The skills-based marketplace

The keyword-based resume databases and job-posting databases of e-recruiting have propelled skills to become the currency of employment in the 21st Century.

If you want your resume or job posting to be noticed on most of the thousands of e-recruiting sites, you must write it to be "visible" to a keyword search engine. Computers have difficulty inferring skills from a description of your experience (or experience requirements in the case of a job posting). Thus, it's better to spell out your skills clearly and directly to ensure you get noticed. According to Fortune Magazine, "chronology is out. KSA is in. That stands for knowledge, skills, and abilities."[i]

However, the fast pace of technology is also part of the problem. Rapid technological advancements compress the "lifespan" of hot skills. Typically, an influx of skilled professionals occurs as individuals complete the training they need to chase the higher wages. This often coincides with the replacement of the technology by a superior product or tool and almost always causes the market wage rates to plunge.

If you want to take advantage of the high value of in-demand skills, you must be prepared to move quickly. As a result, there is precious little time to have your skills certified once you acquire them, if you want to maximize their value to your career. This need for speed in "showing it once you know it" is a major driver behind online certifications, which can be completed 24 hours a day, at your convenience.

Get certified to get ahead

So what's the value of a certification in this accelerated, keyword-driven scenario? That's easy. Pretend for a moment that you're a recruiter screening resumes. Which would you put first, everything being equal: a resume that includes "C++" in a long list of skills, or one that says "Certified C++ Programmer" instead? Both will be flagged by keyword searches, but which will get the interview?

Get certified online and get ahead today

Now, what about online certifications? Let's first examine the key benefits. Then we'll discuss the common objections and show how they represent the flawed arguments of the industry they threaten most. Finally, we'll show how the popularity of Brainbench online certifications has increased in the last 12 months, and predict where it is going.

The primary benefits of online certifications are:

1. Convenience to the examinee
2. More closely simulates the job environment
3. Lower cost
4. Just-in-time credentials
5. More current information for the employer
6. Immediate and more meaningful verification
7. Easy integration of test scores with all e-recruiting sites

Convenience

Nothing can match the 24 by 7 convenience of the web. When you feel ready to attempt an online certification exam, you can do it right then. There is no scheduling, no driving anywhere, no miscues. If you decide you're ready to apply for a new position and you want to make your resume stand out to show how skilled you really are, you can get certified within an hour and a half.

Better Job Simulation

Most online certification exams, including those offered by Brainbench, encourage you to use your online help or reference materials. They typically limit the time you have available for each question, so you must be proficient with the tools to get any benefit from them. This approach more closely simulates the work environment, where resources such as reference books and online help are readily available. And, as any expert on employment testing will tell you, the more closely you simulate the actual work environment, the more meaningful the result.

Lower Cost

A typical, proctored certification exam administered in a testing center costs about $100 in the United States. In contrast, many online certifications are free. The savings are multiplied when you consider that many vendor-based certifications require multiple tests. For instance, the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) designation requires that you pass a minimum of 6 exams. That's $600, as well as six appointments, six hours of exams, and six trips to a testing center. Of course, if you fail any of the tests, you will pay more money and spend more time.

Just-in-time credentials

Many skills sought by employers can be learned in as little as three months. For example, let's say you're a C++ Programmer for a large services company. You are assigned to a Java project for a few months and you really get into it. One day, as your current project is coming to a close, you hear that Java programmers are in high demand and that they earn significantly more than you earn today. You decide to throw your resume into play and post it onto several e-recruiting sites. It says you have three months experience in Java. But it doesn't say you really learned it. How can you make your Java skills stand out? Get a Java Certification, of course. But you need it now, and since employers really, really want to find you, they want you to get it now. How can you get something on your resume today? Through an online certification, of course.

Remember that, once you have an in-demand skill, there's nothing recruiters want more than to find you and convince you to join their company. The faster you can make yourself stand out, the better - for both of you.

More current information to the employer

One common criticism of certifications is that they do not reflect the knowledge of the person right now, but rather at the time they took the exam. The typical situation is when a person passes a certification exam, but does not exercise their skill on the job or otherwise. After some time they forget much of what they knew, and so the certification does not reflect the current knowledge or skill level of the candidate. Online certifications usually mitigate this problem by expiring after a short time, such as one year. This compares with longer expiration cycles for traditional certifications. To employers, this means that online certifications are more meaningful, since there is more confidence that the person still has the skill they're looking for.

Immediate and more meaningful verification

Online certifications are easy to verify online. You just go to the certification authority's website and type in the person's ID code. In addition, it's easy to administer an online verification exam if an employer wants, just to make sure. In fact, Brainbench offers employers a free, on-the-spot, verification exam when candidates come in for an interview. Candidates know that, and are therefore less likely to cheat.

As an employer screening candidates, would you rather see a confirmation that a person is certified, or both a confirmation and a description of the individual's exam results, presenting a percentile score and a list of strengths and weaknesses? To demonstrate: which is more interesting to an employer? Tables A and B or just Table A?

Table A: Certification Record

Name

Date

Authority

Master Internet Security Specialist

1999-12-01

Brainbench

Linux Administrator

1999-12-01

Brainbench

Table B: Exam Results

Name

Date

Score (1-5)

Additional Info.

Internet Security

2000-01-20

4.44

Scored higher than 97% of all previous examinees.

Demonstrates a clear understanding of many advanced concepts within this topic. Appears capable of mentoring others on most projects in this area.

Strengths

?

Electronic Mail

?
?

File Sharing

?
?

Firewalls

?
?

Internet Servers

?

Weak Areas

?

None Noted

?

Sub-Category Scores

?
?

Conceptual

4.0

?

Problem-Solving

5.0

?

Terminology & Syntax

4.0

Linux

1999-12-01

3.19

Scored higher than 54% of all previous examinees.

Demonstrates a solid understanding of core concepts within this topic. Appears capable of working on most projects in this area with moderate assistance. May require some initial assistance with advanced concepts, however.

Strengths

?

Installation

Security

?

Weak Areas

?

Networking

?

Sub-Category Scores

?
?

Conceptual

3.0

?

Problem-Solving

3.0

?

Terminology & Syntax

4.0

Put yourself in the shoes of the employer and it's not hard to appreciate the power of an online certification and the information it makes available for screening purposes. To see the author's transcript, click here: http://www.brainbench.com/transcript.jsp?pid=5758 or for a better example, try http://www.brainbench.com/transcript.jsp?pid=158883

Certify Once - Show Everywhere

The key to getting your market value is being accessible to as many companies as possible. Online certifications generate online transcripts, as described above, that are managed by the individual so that no data becomes public without his or her permission. However, it is then possible to make this data available to all employers and e-recruiting websites, giving you the maximum exposure for your effort.

Consider the following scheme for sharing a transcript with an employer:


In Step 1, the individual creates and maintains a transcript of certifications and test results at the certification authority's website. However, the unique aspect of the transcript is that the portion of it designated "public" by the individual is accessible to anyone, anywhere. This way, you can test in one place and have your test scores be made available to any e-recruiting website or any employer. Sophisticated e-recruiters can integrate your test scores into their own resume database - to make it easier for employers to find you. In steps 2 through 5, the individual, e-recruiting site, and employer interact to present both resume and other profile information, as well as the transcript, to the employer.

There are real-world examples where this process is working. In fact, the following websites have already integrated or are actively integrating Brainbench transcripts:

http://www.careerbuilder.com
http://www.careermosaic.com
http://www.careerpath.com
http://www.computerjobs.com
http://www.kforce.com
http://www.goodshark.com

Many more sites are actively integrating this functionality, including virtually all top e-recruiting sites.

Using this scheme, professionals can certify once and make their certification status and test results available to thousands of employers (soon to be hundreds of thousands) in one easy step. Every time they acquire a new skill, they can add it to their transcript.

As for the Nay Sayers

Despite their obvious advantages, online certifications have been subject to criticism by the industry they threaten the most - the proctored, bricks and mortar certification industry. Certifications are big business, bringing some companies more than $200 million in revenue annually, so we can appreciate why they would resist.

The most common objection to online certifications is that there is no way to verify that a person actually took the test. This is absolutely true. In fact, candidates can lie about anything on their resume, such as prior jobs, skills held, and educational credentials.

The fact is, however, that the majority of people are honest in how they represent themselves. Nevertheless, online certification companies like Brainbench, can actually provide better assurance to employers than any bricks and mortar testing company by offering a free on-the-spot verification test when the person comes in for an interview. This way, an employer can verify that the person has a key skill in real time, eliminating any doubts.

Another common objection is that the person can take the test multiple times and "learn" how to pass rather than learn the subject matter. This is easily defeated with adaptive testing and large question banks. By making it such that the candidate would have an easier time learning the material than memorizing the questions, online certifications remain relatively secure even in the face of open access. Another technique is to show that the person has taken the same test at a high frequency in the person?s transcript.

Certifications are credentials that get you through the screening process and into an interview. This is not the same thing as the SAT, where college admission can be granted on the basis of test scores and grades without any personal interaction. A certification gets your foot in the door and that's it. Once you're in, you still have to prove you can do the job.

Rising Popularity

The popularity of Online Certifications is soaring. The following figure shows online exam volume at Brainbench, the first online skills certification authority:

Total Online Certification Tests Ordered During 1999

Additionally, the results of the 600K+ online exams taken through Brainbench.com during 1999 are maintained within more than 200,000 online transcripts, accessible to e-recruiting sites and employers alike for free (for pinpoint access). Goals for 2000 are to deliver more than 3 million exams to over 2 million professionals.

About the Author

Mike Russiello is President and CEO of Brainbench, the world's leading independent skills certification authority. Prior to cofounding the company in 1998, Mike was a manager at EDS Corporation, where he successfully lead a large scale software implementation for the U.S. Department of Education. Prior to his operational role, Mike was a salesperson for EDS, and is credited with sales totaling over $500 million. Mike is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and holds advanced degrees in Electrical Engineering and Business Administration from the University of California and University of Maryland, respectively.



[i] Fortune Magazine, For Sale Online: You, 07-05-99

 

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