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The Right Certificate Can Land You a Great Job

Certificates are a quick, cost-effective way to pick up in-demand job skills.

Whether you need new skills to boost your career, you’re between jobs, or thinking of starting a business, continuing your education could be key. According to a recent study from Georgetown University, certificates are the fastest-growing qualification you can earn. Unlike degrees, their primary goal is to prepare students for jobs and careers—with very little general academic coursework. They offer affordable occupational training you can put to use right away. Here’s how the right certificate can work for you.

The Value of Certificates

For experienced workers, the opportunity cost of leaving work to gain education is high. That’s one reason certificate programs make sense: More than half take less than a year to earn, and none takes more than two years to complete, says Andrew R. Hanson, a research analyst with Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce who co-authored a pioneering study on certificates released in June 2012. (That’s compared with an average of five years to earn a Bachelor’s degree.)

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Cost is another advantage: A one-year certificate from a public, two-year institution ranges in cost from about $1,500 to $3,000; double that if the certificate program takes two years. Hanson says your income payoff also depends upon the field you’ve chosen and how much education you already have.

“People are increasingly cost conscious, and certificates leverage them into a better job at the lowest cost they can afford,” Hanson says. On average, certificates offer a 20% pay boost over a high school diploma. Workers with an associate’s degree earn 6% more with a certificate, and workers with a bachelor’s degree can expect a 3% pay boost, on average. “But there are softer benefits. A certificate can support a longer career and offer more options and flexibility in your field.” Certificates can help dig you out of a dying industry by helping you get your foot in the door in a different, thriving field.

Since 1994, certificates have become the fastest growing educational award, Hanson says. They’re now the second most common award: Students earn 800,000 of them a year, compared with 1 million bachelor’s degrees. Colleges have taken notice, diving in to offer everything from entry-level certificates at community colleges and for-profit programs to masters’ level certificates at Ivy League universities.

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In fact, certificates may offer the most time-and cost-efficient way to upgrade skills and get hired in a down economy. Thanks to cutbacks, many employers who once trained workers and new hires no longer do. “There is definitely a skills gap, and certificate programs can help close the gap between where you are and where you’d like to be,” says Abby Kohut, recruiter and author of Absolutely Abby's 101 Job Search Secrets. “Some certificates require experience in the field first; for example, the Professional Human Relations certificate requires two to four years of HR experience. But many IT certificates require no prior related experience. And in IT, the more certificates you have, the better your chances of earning a higher wage.”

Most Profitable Certificates

It’s little surprise that jobs in computer and information services account for the highest-paying careers a certificate can buy. IT repair and maintenance, information systems security, network and technologies (managing basic network infrastructure), and visual communications, such as graphic design, are some of the booming fields that certificates cover. Electronics pays a median salary of $47,500; Hanson says median pay jumps to $61,700 for those who earn a certificate inelectronics and apply that education directly to work in their field.

Next most profitable fields include a growing range of careers in business and office management, which is also the highest earning field for women. These certificates include human resource management, business management, and graduate certificates in accounting, senior human relations management, marketing, and project management. The median salary for human resource specialists is $55,310; human resource managers jump to $99,130 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

“If you’re interested in becoming an entrepreneur, a certificate in business and office management would be really helpful,” Hanson says. “It offers the basics of running a business—accounting, finance and human resources—and it would help develop your entrepreneurial skills. These are skills that you’d otherwise gain through years of work experience.”

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For folks interested in a lifestyle career, doing something you love (and not primarily for the payoff), there are plenty of options, too: Event planners, acupuncturists, art therapists, post-secondary teachers, and health and wellness educators, are examples where certificates can offer entrée into fields that may have grown significantly since you began your career. ONetonline, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is a great tool to help explore careers.

Not all certificates are created equal, Kohut says. Certificate programs require “seat time” (and not just examinations), so look for a respected program near you or online. Investigate the prerequisites of the program you’re considering to see what experience or prior education you’ll need to apply. Some MBA programs require a graduate level business administration certificate before beginning masters-degree classwork.

“Certificates are relatively new, but given the rising cost of education, these programs are priced and structured to leverage directly into a career,” Hanson says. “People are placing a higher premium on their time. And that’s especially true for older workers with busy lives.”

Illustration: Akindo/Getty Images