The Value(?) of Credentials: What do they really tell us?

Over the past quarter century, North American society  has undergone a profound education creep. This is evident in the fact that more and more students are entering university, but also in my impression of the seemingly endless number of new degree programs and industry certifications that have emerged.

While the world is no doubt a more sophisticated place than it was 20 years ago, particularly in the sciences, a good part of the expansion of credentials seems more about furthering an insider versus outsider mentality designed to insulate insiders from competition than it is about real credentials.

The past is ripe with examples of organizations that have used licenses to restrict access to professions from guilds to modern-day unions. Credentials and by extension licenses are equivalent barriers. At some level, all of these function to limit or constrain who can (or should) carry out a particular service.

Now I am not opposed to all credentials. Admittedly, I would prefer to be seen by a physician that has a license over one that does not. But the credential itself offers little more than a minimal standard. Every credential, whether it is held by a doctor, a CMA, or a market researcher, is only a statement that the person met a standard. By definition, some of those holding the certification are much better than others. Interestingly, we don’t ask for transcripts to prove our doctor of choice was top of their class, which would be an effective measure of how much confidence the granting organization has in their abilities.  Instead, we either trust that the person knows what they are doing or we look for other validation of their ability (where they work, recommendations from friends or colleagues).

When we move from life-and-death to the more mundane matters of business and service choice, the credential seems to offer even less. For most of us, I expect we  tend to assume that a person has the required certifications and make our choice based on other factors. The minimum standard is probably not what we really care about when choosing someone to cut our hair, do our taxes, or give us financial advice. We want more, even if judging that more is not easy (and sometimes requires experimentation).

If we always want more, then credentials are really just an entry ticket. They simply get one past credential-based filters in hiring and other selection processes. We win or lose on other factors. Which raises the question, do we need all of these credentials? Would the things that we really care about (e.g. previous experience, recommendations) not suffice to exclude those who would not meet the minimum credential anyway?

As journalists have found out, there are forces in North American society that are breaking down the barriers between those with and without credentials. Anyone can now be a journalists and their content speaks for itself (for better or worse). It is not clear that other jobs face the same pressure but more credentials is unlikely to be the answer.

So the next time you see a bunch of letters after someone’s name, ask yourself what they really mean. To me, they are at best a sign of personal commitment and interest not a basis for distinguishing between two people.

Richard Jenkins, Ph.D.

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About Richard Jenkins

Market research professional and small business owner

View all posts by Richard Jenkins


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