Friday Rant: Certifications and Training Alone are Not the Answer to Career Growth

Earlier this week, Next Level Purchasing announced their latest certification, the SPSM2. Judging from the look of the curriculum, it seems like it covers quite a bit of ground and some in the industry have positioned it as a "masters degree" in purchasing compared with the SPSM certification. But I've recently come to question the stand-alone value of certifications in general -- especially multiple certifications -- as they relate to career growth. Indeed, rather than look at certifications as a means of getting a leg up on the competition from a credibility perspective, I've begun to think we should look at them as one way of acquiring a base level of personal knowledge rather than paving a direct path to career mobility.

Why have I changed my tune on this? I've come to believe that applied and studied knowledge are two different things -- especially when it comes to promotion and career advancement. After all, we principally learn by doing -- not just from textbooks and lectures (or online media as the case may be). So if you're looking for that next position or promotion, chances are your superiors are going to value what you've done versus what you've studied (if you need a reason why Harvard and Wharton MBAs don't run the world, look at the I-banking implosion in the past twelve months). Now, this is not to say training and certification won't help you learn and build a knowledge base -- quite the contrary in fact. It will. But having observed procurement executives that I interact with on a regular basis, I can tell you certifications, for those at the director level and above, mean very little, at least in Global 2000 organizations. It's the person and their experience that the majority of executives value first.

To decide whether or not pursuing multiple certifications (or even individual ones) is the best use of one's time from a career growth perspective, the question to ask is whether or not working and non-working hours are better spent developing new skills through different means. For example, should an individual volunteer time to work with another area of the organization (e.g., customs/trade) versus studying for the global sourcing / VAT component of the SPSM2 certification area? I guarantee, having worked with customs compliance professionals in the past, that the nuances of import/export will never be captured in a procurement-based certification. Rather, you need to learn by doing down to the point of seeing a customs officer put his "piece" on the table in front of you to prove a point -- or at least wearing it into a meeting. Seriously, memorizing Incoterms for a test is just not as relevant as the real time team problem solving needed when you have cargo on the water or held up at port and something goes wrong.

I'm increasingly convinced that much of the certification value from ISM and other groups often derives from the networking opportunities at the regional and national levels. Sure, the base curriculum is useful, but meaningful career advancement comes from networking within the organization and building connections more than holding a framed certificate. My argument is the same, by the way, for that top notch MBA -- which is why I think professional degrees from institutions without the ability to provide a strong network for at least the first post-degree job are also a waste of time commercially.

No doubt, ISM, Next Level Purchasing, American Purchasing Society and others offer a valuable service when it comes to learning and teaching through their online and offline curricula. But if you look at who's running procurement and supply chain organizations today (or serving in Director-level and more senior roles), I suspect that they're highly unlikely to make decisions on promotions/hiring for manager or higher roles based on certification as the primary requisite. So rather than pursue certification(s) with career goals in mind, I'd suggest using them as one option for learning a baseline of knowledge from which to apply theories in the real world. There's nothing wrong with them. But like degrees -- including those from top notch institutions -- they're not a magic bullet for career mobility, either.

Jason Busch

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