Work Experience or Certifications? What's Better for Your Career?

Work Experience or Certifications? What's Better for Your Career?

If you’re a student thinking about your post-secondary education or a professional looking to make a career change, you might be wondering whether you need some type of certification or if work experience is enough.

The truth is, there’s no cut and dry answer. For decades, it was universally accepted that earning a bachelor’s degree was a prerequisite for landing a good job. A growing number of students graduated from high school and continued straight on to post-secondary. Others worked for a number of years and then returned to school at the mid-career point, usually while still working full time.

Over the past 20 years, however, earning a degree has become increasingly expensive. Tuition costs have risen at a much higher rate than wages, resulting in many students having to take out significant loans. According to Aleksandra Sagan’s CBC News article “Back to school 2015: 5 myths about student loans,” the average Canadian student has accumulated between $20,000 and $30,000 in debt by the time they graduate.

In the early 2000s, the prospect of such high debt combined with the volatility of the job market prompted many Millennials to start seeking alternative routes to a career. This corresponded with the rise of online education such as university extension courses; online degrees; developer and design courses; and ongoing professional certifications in fields such as engineering, HR and education. More recently, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) provide free access to courses from a variety of educational institutes, including MIT and the University of Toronto.

It’s also important to note that an increasing number of companies offer on-the-job training and apprenticeships, especially in STEM fields. By doing so, they’re investing in a loyal workforce that’s trained to meet their precise needs.

What all of this means is that in 2016, there are a multitude of avenues for you to gain knowledge and learn job skills. To find out what kind of qualifications and experience are required for the role you want, research the qualifications of professionals who are already doing that job. LinkedIn can provide a valuable resource to research education, training and experience. You should also look at current job postings to see what employers are asking for.

If you do this, you should soon gain a good idea of the most accepted route to the profession you want. But there’s one more factor to take into account: your preferred method of learning.

If you prefer hands-on training and generally don’t do very well learning from books, then it’s probably better to look for an opportunity to learn on the job than to go to school. On the other hand, if you enjoy a formal educational setting and can handle the tuition fees, then heading back to the classroom might be the right option for you.

Finally, keep in mind that a combination of experience and certifications is always the best way to get the career you want. A degree alone is unlikely to get you in the door at any employer; you may also need at least one internship and preferably a lot of part-time experience. And even then, you’ll need years of experience and demonstrable accomplishments to advance to a senior position.

Likewise, if you gain all your skills while working, it’s advisable to pursue professional certifications throughout the course of your career. Remember: when your skills are backed by accreditation, you become more valuable to employers.