Just a year ago, a job seeker might have found he had 12 out of the 14 requirements listed for a job posting and applied. He stood a good chance of obtaining an interview and even a job offer.
But the faltering economy has filled the job market with candidates who possess all 14 requirements and put the onus on the job seeker to possess the credentials required for the job.
In boom times, employers might list a set of certifications on a job posting more as an aspirational list than a set of firm requirements. It was icing on the cake, said Shane Cox, manager of talent acquisition at Harvard Business Publishing, who spent more than a decade in financial services before switching to publishing.
But in bad economies, when there are many qualified candidates out of work, a list of certifications is one more way for overburdened hiring managers to filter candidates who don't fit the ideal profile.
Knowing how recruiters see certifications and credentials and knowing which ones are mandated, which ones are required, which ones are just beneficial and which ones are useless can help you guide your job search or retraining strategy.
Required, “required” and optional
Recruiters look at two categories of “hard certifications”: those mandated by law to perform a job and those not required by law but considered beneficial. They also consider “soft credentials,” another term for specific work experience.
During this recession, Cox said, more candidates are being judged on the basis of soft credentials — those not mandated by law but considered beneficial.
Little has changed in certifications required by law, she said. In financial services, for example, job descriptions list the credentials a candidate must have to perform the job legally, and that hasn’t changed, Cox said.
In less-regulated industries, by contrast, optional certifications show dedication to continued study and the energy to move ahead, not to mention the additional knowledge or skills involved, according to Sharon Jautz, an HR consultant specializing in online and digital media. However, those certifications once considered a plus are all but required now, Cox said.
What does this mean for job seekers weighing the benefits of optional certifications? Priority One is to determine which ones carry the most weight in your industry and specialty (and which are considered all but required), Jautz said. A certification is unlikely to get you onto a short list if the skills involved don't reflect the kind of job for which you're applying.
Recruiters also consider soft credentials: your level of experience in specific tasks and responsibilities. Don’t be misled by the “soft” moniker, however; demonstrating the level of experience an employer wants for a specific task is as important as holding a required credential or certification.
But just meeting the volume of years required isn’t enough.
“It's not how long you've been in a job that matters, it's what you've been doing there,” Cox said.
Even if the titles are similar, 10 years’ experience in a job with significantly different responsibilities from the one you’re pursuing won’t hold water with discerning employers.
"Employers really are looking for practical experience; they want to know not just what was accomplished by a team you were on, they want to know what you actually did besides 'leadership,' " Cox said. "They want to see executives who are willing to get their hands dirty."
And being able to play just one role doesn't cut it anymore, either.
"Everyone's had to do more with less over the last two or three years, so they can't afford to hire someone who does strategy really well but just does strategy," Cox said.
"A lot of times, it's the details of the project work people did that makes a difference. It's the detail that shows what you did on a team and how effective that was," Cox said. "When you do that in some specific detail without coming up with a 10-page resume, people will pick you up very quickly."
Therefore, your resume must describe how your leadership or strategic skills set the company up for a great result, Cox said, then describe what part of the work you did yourself to make it happen.
Generalists vs. specialists
If you don’t have the time or money to invest in hard certifications, there are ways you can beef up your soft credentials while you’re on the job. Employers want to see that you have practical experience with many aspects of a position, not just that you led the team and handed off the details, Cox said.
"It's kind of unfair in some ways,” she said. “For the last 10 years, we've been looking for specialists; now we're looking for people who are specialists but also have generalist skills and management skills.”
Jautz said new technologies, including the Internet, have changed the way businesses work. Employers now expect senior executives to be able to work directly with a variety of digital tools.
Rather than just outline a Web-based marketing plan on paper and hand it off to production managers, for example, a marketing executive must demonstrate enough practical understanding of design software, search-engine optimization and other technologies to guide it to completion.
“You don't have to do all of it yourself,” Jautz said, “but you have to be up on the technical skills and be able to understand how it gets done in order to do it.”