Top Five Reasons Tech Pros Should Earn Professional Certificates

eWEEK DATA POINTS: New IT jobs will require adeptness in relatively new fields such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science. Better get prequalified.

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It’s no secret that tech automation is poised to upend many traditional careers. The good news is that if you have the right technical background, your skills are in greater demand than ever. In fact, according to a recent survey by the Consumer Technology Association, 92% of employers reported that they’ll “need more employees with technical skills.”

Many of these jobs will require adeptness in relatively new fields such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science.

If you don’t already have experience in one of these burgeoning areas, how do you get it? Should you take off a couple of years from work and go to graduate school? Or, does it make more sense to seek out an employer that’s willing to teach you? Unfortunately, the former can be difficult to afford in time and money, and the latter is rarely feasible as employers are increasingly looking for skilled people who can hit the ground running.

Your third option is earning a professional certificate. What we’re beginning to see is a retooling of university continuing education programs across the country: Whereas in the past, continuing education programs focused primarily on “enrichment,” there’s a shift toward offering certificates designed to fill very specific job openings … and increasingly for some very technical positions.

In this eWEEK Data Points article, Dr. Rovy Branon at the University of Washington Continuum College offers five reasons why you should consider getting a professional certificate.

Data Point No. 1: Rapid change requires constant updating of your skills.

The neck-breaking speed at which technology is evolving and impacting work means your skills can become outdated quickly. Factors such as longevity and automation mean we need to be continually updating our skills throughout our careers. Professional certificates are ideal for those of us in the "middle space"—post-graduates and those with a good job who are looking to advance within our current career. Or, in other cases, make a jump to an entirely new one.

At the University of Washington, the most popular certificates include tech-based project management, coupled with data skills involving analytics, science, programing languages, machine learning and big data. Depending on when you went to college, or even graduate school, there is a good chance courses on these topics weren’t even offered.

Data Point No. 2:  A certificate program helps you earn targeted skills in less time and for less money than a degree.

Professional certificate programs allow you to take a course while you’re still working at your current job; most of them are offered at night or online, or as a hybrid classroom and online option. Unlike graduate programs, they’re obtainable in less than a year. They also cost thousands of dollars less than a degree. Moreover, many of us will be working well past the age of 65, either by choice or out of necessity. To stay highly employable, we’ll need to reskill multiple times throughout our long careers. Certifications offer a practical and affordable way to do so.

Data Point No. 3: Professional certificate programs are designed to meet employer expectations.

There’s a reason why top certificate providers are offering classes in areas such as AI and machine learning: It’s because these are the skills employers are demanding. For example, UofW tech professional certificate programs have advisory boards comprising people from top Seattle employers, including Microsoft, Amazon and T-Mobile. Every board validates the curriculum from an industry perspective, ensuring what students learn in the classroom can be applied directly in the office or in a lab. Additionally, professionals from these top tech employers are also its course instructors.

Data Point No. 4: Programs can offer a boost to your professional network. 

Some certificate providers offer career resources and support after you complete the program. This is particularly true of certificate programs offered by accredited universities. Questions you should ask a provider: Am I considered an alumnus as a certificate graduate, or only if I earn a degree? Do you integrate certificate students into your alumni network? Do you host tech-specific job fairs or bring experts in from tech and related businesses for networking opportunities?

Data Point No. 5: Career counselors can help you navigate your career.

A great thing about working in the tech industry is that there are a tremendous number of options now available to you. Today, someone with an IT background can stick to that path or perhaps decide to make a leap to an adjacent or business-related role.

The question is: How do you get more nuanced about education to help make that pivot? You might choose to go deep on programming and earn a certificate in Python. Or you could consider moving to a tech-adjacent area--known as “new collar” or “middle-collar” jobs--such as those in cyber-security or data analytics. Or, perhaps you’d like to start your own business and could use some entrepreneurial skills.

To quote Shakespeare, “The world is your oyster,” and aligning your educational investments to your goals is an important place to start. Seek out enrollment services teams to help you think through your long-term career goals and consider your options as you move forward in your career.

If you have a suggestion for an eWEEK Data Points article, email cpreimesberger@eweek.com.