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Evaluate educational or training requirements.

Doesn’t every technical person need a college degree, at the least? No. A college degree shows a kind of perseverance, but not necessarily the kind of perseverance you need in the person you hire to perform your work. College degrees awarded in the fields of science, engineering, or computer science indicate that the candidate may have learned enough technical information to understand the job to be performed, but degrees don’t mean the candidate can perform as needed. Don’t let the presence of a degree convince you that a person has the skills and characteristics to do the job well. And don’t let the lack of a degree deter you from screening and interviewing people whose experience looks like it might fit your opening.

A candidate’s experience with successful product development, release, and support can be more valuable to you than a college degree. One of the best test developers and all-around system administrators I ever worked with was someone who began programming at the age of eighteen and didn’t bother going to college until he’d reached his late twenties. Some of the best developers I’ve worked with never graduated from college. Many good managers I know never even finished college, let alone obtained an MBA or any other advanced degree.

If your HR Department has a policy against technical candidates without degrees, talk to anyone who will listen to discover whether degrees are shorthand for describing some level of competence or experience. (In my view, the real key is whether the person has learned anything from whatever education or experience he or she has had.) Then, decide whether to either fight the policy or live with the restriction.

Experience catches up with formal education. I have observed that technical-degree holders lose technical proficiency if they don’t use the particular skill or don’t keep up with advances and changes in the field. Remember, too, that not all schools teach the latest technologies, practices, and techniques in their undergraduate curricula.

Depending on your culture, academic credentials may be essential. If you’re hiring for a research environment, and your internal customers measure your staff members by the degrees they hold, look for people with degrees. If you’re creating a professional services organization, and external customers will want to know how many and what kinds of degrees staff members have, your staff members may need a surfeit of advanced degrees.

A candidate’s education or training only tells you the candidate has gone to school. What you want is to find the candidate who has learned to think. Education or training doesn’t tell you whether the candidate has learned anything applicable to your job.

Licenses and certifications

What should you know about licenses and certifications? The first fact to remember is that governing bodies—usually the state or city in which the skill is practiced—oversee professional licenses, obliging the licensee to assume legal responsibility for work performed under the license. For example, a licensed “Engineer” has a legal responsibility for the quality of any design he or she signs off on. If you require someone with a license, then specify that license in the job analysis.

Professional organizations, rather than governments, oversee certification, but certification confers no legal guarantee for the quality of products produced by certificate holders. Certification is an indication that the candidate has experience in the field, was motivated enough to pursue the certification, and has mastered enough material to pass an exam. Unfortunately, even though certification may require work experience, the bodies that grant certification don’t verify that the work done by the certification holder was successful or is even applicable to your needs. Certification does indicate that the candidate has learned the material well enough to pass an exam, but it carries no guarantee that the candidate can apply the knowledge to his or her work.

I personally do not consider certification to mean anything much when I am hiring someone for a technical position. Because the knowledge tested is functional-skills book knowledge, make sure you understand what the person must do to maintain his or her certification and the value of that certification to your environment. Also, determine if you will need to make any accommodations for the employee to maintain the certification. Many certifications require ongoing education in some form, so you need to be clear who will pay for that.

List the license or certification requirement as part of your job analysis if you do require either or both.

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