The problem of certifications that don't measure practical skills
Posted on
February 20, 2019

This feature first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Most certifications measure one's grasp of conceptual knowledge. Not all of them, however, also gauge mastery of practical skills.

The confidence of being certified is wonderfully comforting! Certification is knowledge for the hiree, and proof for the hirer. Certification provides reasonable assurance that a prospective employee can talk the technical talk, and also walk the technical walk (so to speak).

Any certified worker wants to be capable of performing the role for which they've been hired, and that worker's employer most definitely wants the newcomer to be able to perform the role for which they've been hired. I once had an experience that sheds some light on this common circumstance.

Years ago, I was employed by a large organization, specifically in the capacity of what my employer referred to as an enabler. My role was to function as an on-site, front-line, in-person, technical support presence for multiple diverse departments. I responded to numerous trouble tickets related to personal computer hardware, operating systems, application software, and printing-related issues.

My job was to resolve any issue related to desktop computing, and to know whether an issue would be best served if escalated to a network infrastructure, server, or telecommunications team. Regardless of whether I escalated a trouble ticket, or personally saw it through from inception to resolution, it was my responsibility to follow each ticket through to resolution.

My role was to enable each employee I worked with to effectively utilize computers, as well as computer-related technology, to better fulfill their roles within their respective departments. If the people I worked with didn't know what they were doing any better after meeting with me than before, then I hadn't done my job.

On a particular Monday morning, I was informed that an intern would be starting midweek. I was asked to shadow and train this individual — let's call him Mark — for a week or two until he knew the ropes and could make his way around and function solo. The appointed morning arrived, and I was able to greet and welcome Mark to his new role, and his first day on the job.

Mark was a pleasure. He was able to fluidly converse on a variety of both work-related and extracurricular topics. He was certainly conversant as we reviewed the assortment of trouble tickets that had been assigned that day and were awaiting our response.

This made perfect sense to me, as Mark had a fistful of up-to-date and applicable industry certifications, including CompTIA's A+ and one of Microsoft's various MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) credentials. He was able to read through each ticket and provide a solid theoretical response to what he felt was the root cause of each reported issue.

After a couple of hours spent reviewing tickets and verbally orienting Mark on the organization — including details about each department in the company — we set out to respond to our first trouble ticket of the day.

Something peculiar occurred, however, upon arrival at the desktop computer for which the issue had been reported. The formerly conversant Mark, who had verbally rehearsed multiple scenarios and probable outcomes to the problem we faced, sat befuddled at the computer keyboard.

After a moment or two, he turned to me and kindly asked how to commence troubleshooting. The confident technician I'd met that morning had suddenly come face-to-face with his own lack of practical hands-on experience. It's one thing to read about fixing computer problems, and another thing to actually fix them.

My interest was piqued. Before me was sudden and unanticipated proof that a fully certified individual might well be able to talk a good talk, while not necessarily being able to walk a solidly confident walk. Mark didn't possess the IT wherewithal to perform the role for which he had been hired.

Admittedly, after a week with me looking over his shoulder, Mark was fully functional within every department. The question, however, remained in my mind: Why hadn't Mark's certifications given him the practical hands-on know-how he needed to hit the ground running on day one?

Fast-forward a few years to my current support job with TestOut Corporation. Within my first year of employment, and through many inbound customer communications (primarily originating at institutions of higher education), I learned that my experience with Mark was not uncommon.

The schools we partnered with were (and remain) concerned that current industry certifications are not equipping students with the practical ability to perform day-to-day IT tasks. These colleges tend to be greatly impressed with the degree to which certification can effectively measure students' theoretical understanding of IT topics.

That same theoretical understanding, on the other hand, doesn't always translate into an ability to effectively perform in an actual workplace setting. We found ourselves consistently being asked whether certifications could be designed that would not only measure what IT concepts a student theoretically understands, but also how well they can perform related job functions.

Most certifications measure one's grasp of conceptual knowledge. Not all of them, however, also gauge mastery of practical skills.

TestOut marketing materials put it this way: Certifications are supposed to prove to employers that people have desired knowledge and skills. But since most certifications only measure knowledge, how do you prove that you also have skills?

A multiple-choice certification exam can verify basic knowledge and memorization, but it takes a different approach to assess skills. The exams that TestOut creates for its own TestOut Pro certifications (including PC Pro, Network Pro, Security Pro, Linux Pro, and several others) incorporate simulation-based questions that require practical skills.

During my eight years of employment with TestOut, I have shared the story of my first day working with Mark with quite a few of the hundreds of instructors and administrators I have encountered. I always tell them that I know Mark would have been more confident and capable right off the bat if he'd had a few TestOut Pro certifications to go with his credentials from Microsoft and CompTIA.

His first day on the job would have been completely different. Mark would have been able to sit at that computer keyboard with all the confidence of an employee who had already been in the workplace for as much as 10 months to 1 year. Instead of being frozen by befuddlement, he would have jumped right in and begun to troubleshoot the problem reported on that first ticket.

The tech industry badly needs workers, and anyone who employers feel confident can perform on his or her first day on the job is guaranteed to have an advantage in the hiring process. Having a certification on your résumé is a real asset. Having a certification that verifies practical skills in addition to conceptual knowledge is even better.

About the Author

Ken Clark is an implementation manager at TestOut Corporation, and a veteran of the IT industry.

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