What will certification do for me?

In speaking with people since the Summit about certification, I’ve been asked many variations on the question “what’s in it for me?” It’s a natural question that must have a good answer, but there’s more than one way to look at it.

The primary driver we identified for certification in technical communication is to legitimize the contributions of, and respect for, our profession. How many times I’ve heard technical writers complain that no one respects us! It’s painful, and I’m for anything that would improve things. But what people really want to know is whether certification will be valuable for us as individuals. What is the value of certification? I’ll answer that, but first I’ll reframe the question.

An analogy comes to mind. Imagine that you are an organically grown apple. Of what use to you is a label that says “USDA Organic”? Does it matter to you? No! One way or the other, you’re going to end up eaten.

But now imagine that you’re a consumer of apples. Of what use is the label to you? A lot, if you’re interested in organically grown apples. The label identifies the apple as something you want. In fact, people pay a premium for organically grown apples, and the label identifies the apple as what you’re looking for.

And how about the grower of organic apples? The label validates that the apple is, as priced and advertised, organically grown. Since there’s a premium market, the grower realizes additional revenue. I have also read that it’s cheaper to grow organic food, but I wouldn’t know. But either way, there’s value in that certification for the grower.

(Disclaimer: I live in apple country in Massachusetts, and tend to one apple tree that has, from time to time, yielded some excellent apples. But I don’t grow them organically.)

The question you should ask is “what’s in it for employers?” Obviously, we want, among other things, higher salaries as certified professionals. But why would an employer pay more for one? It turns out that there’s a general economic argument that explains why they do. Employers find that certified professionals are cheaper to hire, because HR departments can screen on the keyword, and because it takes less time to establish the credentials of certified professionals, because you can safely assume that they know certain things. Employers find certified professionals are cheaper to train, partly because they know their domains. Finally, employers find certified professionals cheaper to replace, simply because they don’t have to replace them as often. (This is also why training is cheaper–it has to be repeated for replacements less often.) Replacing an employee means going back through the recruitment and training phases again, and it’s expensive: I’ve seen estimates of four months’ salary per position. Given these conditions, employers seek out certified professionals. And once this competition begins, the demand has increased, and salaries naturally rise.

This is not some economist’s pipe dream, this is reality, demonstrated time and again in other certified professions. The Project Management Institute, for example, has 25 years of salary data, and they see that PMP-certified mid-career professionals earn on average 17% more than uncertified professionals. That’s not a one-time boost, but more per year, every year, until retirement.

Now, no one can promise you a direct line from certification in any profession to an immediate, or even an assured, higher salary. And it won’t happen overnight. Life doesn’t work that way. But as a general rule, certification boosts salaries across professions, for reasons that have nothing to do with any specific profession. The laws of supply and demand hold for all goods and services. We have seen no reason why technical communication would be any different. So, speaking in the broadest sense of the word “you,” that’s what’s in it for you.

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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