Certification for Technical Communicators: Will it succeed?

Now that STC has relaunched its CPTC program, it’s worth asking: is certification for technical communicators an idea whose time has come?

Full disclosure: I studied the certification question in depth as a member of the STC board of directors in the mid 1990s. Soon after I left the board, the leadership decided not to go ahead with a program. (My own position was neutral.) When STC launched the original CPTC program about 5 years ago, I wasn’t involved in the decision or in the deliberations that led up to it.

Will anyone want certification?

cptc_foundationAt the recent STC Summit conference, someone asked me whether I plan to pursue a CPTC certification. I said no, because I don’t think it would benefit someone with my experience and reputation. However, If I were a young professional trying to make a name for myself, I might very well feel differently.

Junior- and intermediate-level technical communicators might find that having a certification opens doors for them, or at least gives them an edge in a crowded and competitive job market.

So, yes: some practitioners might find certification to be an idea whose time has come.

Is this certification program better than the first one?

STC’s first foray into certification, also called CPTC, never caught on. The new program is better than that one in at least two ways:

You’ll retain your certification by earning continuing education units (CEUs): taking courses, attending conferences, and just belonging to STC. In the old program, your certification expired after 3 years and you had to go through the process all over again.

There’ll be three levels of certification instead of just one. The Foundation level is exam-based; higher levels will be a combination of exam-based and portfolio-based.

Will the tiered structure cause confusion? Will employers be able to distinguish the various levels on applicants’ resumes? Will they know which levels to specify in job postings?

I think that any confusion will be offset by the advantages of the tiered structure: it’ll make the program attractive to a broader range of people, and it’ll lower the bar to junior-level practitioners.

What does the certification program measure?

This one has me scratching my head.

STC put a lot of effort into developing its body of knowledge, or TCBOK. Why, then, is the Foundation level of the CPTC program (the only level that’s currently available) based on a single textbook rather than on a broader sampling of the TCBOK?

(Update – 6 June 2016: STC’s Liz Pohland addresses these questions, and others, in the Comments section at the end of this article.)

Why had I never heard of that textbook, or its author, before it became the basis for the CPTC program?

I admit to not having in-depth knowledge of the academic side of our profession. But I know the names of some of the leading texts (they’re part of the TCBOK). And I know a great many of the people who’ve served with distinction in our academic programs.

Dr. Richard Johnson-Sheehan, author of the textbook on which the CPTC Foundation level is based, might be a top-notch scholar. But he’s far from being a household name. The textbook itself, while comprehensive in scope, isn’t (as far as I know) widely recognized as authoritative.

So why was that textbook chosen, over everything else in the TCBOK? I’m sure a lot of thought went into the choice. Perhaps (just a guess) STC commissioned the writing of the book specifically for this program. But, not knowing for sure, I’m baffled.

Will the new certification program succeed?

In a field where practitioners aren’t legally required to be certified (or, more accurately, licensed), it’s tough to establish and sustain a certification program. The program must create demand in two different markets:

  • Practitioners who want to make a name for themselves
  • Employers who hire the practitioners, who want to ensure that applicants meet a certain set of standards

I can envision the CPTC program catching on with practitioners, especially at the junior and intermediate levels — but only if it’s carefully formulated, and only if it tests for skills that are broadly recognized as relevant in today’s marketplace.

Will CPTC catch on with the other market: the employers? That’s where I’m skeptical.

Most employers, unfortunately, don’t place much emphasis on hiring skilled professionals. In fact, many would rather hire less skilled people, hoping to get the work done on the cheap.

When so many job ads enumerate a list of tools (FrameMaker, Illustrator, what have you) but say almost nothing about professional skills, how many employers will demand — or even express a preference for — applicants who are certified?

What do you say?

It’s your turn. What do you think about certification for technical communicators? Can you share any insight into the questions I’ve raised, especially the question about why Dr. Johnson-Sheehan’s book was chosen? Will the CPTC program, or something similar to it, succeed?

18 thoughts on “Certification for Technical Communicators: Will it succeed?

  1. techwriterkai

    Good question about “the book”. Seeing that the STC special edition is the 5th edition, and the second edition goes back to 2007, I think the plausible guess of a special commission is unlikely. Of course, all other explanations are less appetizing…

  2. martinedic2016

    How can this book be the defining resource for younger tech writers when it does not even mention structured content or topic-based writing? It purports to explain the central focus of computers as creation and management tools but only references Google docs. If a certification is being based on training that does not reference these changes in the entire process and use of documentation, it is actually going to hurt the careers of younger writers.

  3. Liz Pohland

    The decision to select a single textbook was intentional and much consideration was taken in making the choice. The Certification Commission conducted KSA surveys with technical communicators on the knowledge, skills, and abilities they needed to do their jobs. This resulted in 9 core skill areas. The TCBOK committee chairs conducted a thorough analysis of the content in the BOK and felt the areas for Foundation certification (which measures knowledge, recall, and understanding of key techcomm concepts) were not complete enough yet to develop a rigorous exam. As a result, an analysis of textbooks was conducted by academics and practitioners in the field, and Johnson-Sheehan’s book Technical Communication Today was selected. It is widely adopted by undergraduate programs in the field.

    STC openly acknowledges that the textbook is not perfect–no textbook is–but based on the textbooks available in the field, for the launch of the Foundation program in alignment with the 9 areas, the textbook was considered the best match. Another consideration STC is trying to balance is the cost to candidates. Multiple textbooks would have been too expensive.

    The longterm goal of the program is to move away from a textbook model and for the BOK to be the body of knowledge behind the exam. But until the content in the BOK is more fully complete, especially in the core skill areas, the textbook is the best solution for the Foundation exam. At the 2016 Summit in Anaheim, the BOK committee gave a session that explained the challenges and needs in completing the necessary content. The BOK will be the body of knowledge for the Practitioner CPTC level, and the exam will be scenario-based (measuring the ability to apply and analyze knowledge and ideas).

    It’s frustrating for STC’s dedicated volunteers and staff to know the rigor and years of work that have gone into the detailed planning of this program and see questions put forth online without an initial investigation of the answers to the questions posed. I urge anyone interested in CPTC development to please contact us if you ever have any questions about the certification program, or anything related to STC for that matter, at our general email address (stc@stc.org), or to Liz Pohland at liz.pohland@stc.org, or Chris Lyons at chris.lyons@stc.org. We strive to be transparent about our decisions and processes!

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Liz, for taking the time to explain. I especially appreciate the points you make about controlling costs for the candidates and about the long-term plan to rely more heavily on the BOK as it matures.

      I also appreciate the invitation to contact you and Chris. I encourage the readers of this blog to do just that if they want more information.

  4. Steven Jong

    I sensed a disturbance in the Force… 8^)

    Certification is of course near and dear to my heart. As the first chairman of the STC Certification Commission I can speak authoritatively to the first version of the program, though not to the current version. I want to correct a couple of misstatements of fact Larry made, and then comment on his questions.

    The first CPTC certification did include a recertification requirement, as any good certification program should. Like a college degree, a certification you don’t have to maintain eventually becomes obsolete. The value of a certification that you must work to maintain is that it remains fresh and valuable. When we started the program STC had not yet defined CEU values for activities; since then it has done so.

    The first CPTC covered a comprehensive range of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs); let’s call it a “high-end” credential. We introduced a second certification shortly before the program was suspended that covered a subset of the same KSAs; let’s call it a “medium-weight” credential. The current CPTC Foundation credential is aimed at new professionals; let’s call it a “lightweight” credential. I don’t know if the medium-weight credential will be retained, but the high-end CPTC will. The overall architecture would seem to remain.

    I cannot say why the current text was selected, but having something specific to test against is easier for applicants and the testing agency. (A multiple-choice exam is easier, faster, cheaper, and more objective than portfolio-based assessment.) When we were designing the original CPTC, the STC Body of Knowledge, which was being created using academic rigor and principles, was not being assembled in a specific order and was not complete in the areas we needed for certification. In time, testing against the STCBOK is the ideal solution.

    Whether the CPTC will catch on with employers is a good and important question. The original certification was vetted by employers; I cannot speak to this version. I can comment in general on why certifications have value to employers. In any field, the value to employers of certified professionals is multifaceted. These are not theoretical arguments, they are all real-world advantages that employers and their HR groups recognize and act on, today, in all professional fields.

    First, it’s more likely that certified professionals have the skills they say they have and not just a good-looking resume, a glowing reference, and a glib manner, because they’ve been vetted by an objective third party. This is particularly valuable when when an employer staffs remotely or uses a third-party firm. There are a few of us lone wolves who can confidently and successfully assess a portfolio and find a good writer, but what good is that when you’re engaging a firm with subcontractors you can’t even meet? What good is it when an HR drone is pre-screening resumes? The screener might not recognize great abilities, but they can spot a certification. Certification is thus a tie-breaker in deciding whom to interview and whom to hire.

    Furthermore, anyone can get a certificate in a tool, any any employer can train a new hire on their own technology, but most employers can’t train technical communicators to be technical communicators; they need the employee to have the KSAs from day one. The thing we certify is the thing employers can’t make, or assess, themselves. Looking to certifications helps them make better choices.

    Also, the certified professional is more likely to be successful because they have relevant and contemporary KSAs, which saves the very considerable cost of rehiring and retraining. Speaking of training costs, because of the continuing-education requirements, certified professionals tend to *stay* successful, which employers value, rather than starting off well but rotting in place over time.

    Finally, there are compelling legal arguments for using certifications–and believe me, employers care deeply about reducing potential legal exposure. For one, hiring certified professionals reduces legal liability: if the employee screws up, it’s not all on the employer for having hired an incompetent. For another, certification trumps protected status; that is, given the choice between hiring someone in a protected class and someone with a certification, going with the certified applicant is legally defensible.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      I was hoping you’d weigh in, Steve (and would’ve been worried if you hadn’t). Thanks for sharing the benefit of your knowledge — and especially for the insights on why employers should value certification.

    2. Liz Pohland

      Thanks, Steve. I want to clarify that the foundation certification is not “lightweight.” All levels are equally rigorous and based on ISO certification standards set by APMG. The new CPTC is based on Bloom’s Taxonomy and each level aligns with learning theory (here’s a diagram of the theory: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/Bloomtaxonomy.jpg). Foundation tests knowledge, recall, and understanding. Practitioner will test the ability to apply and analyze information in situations. And Expert will align with the old program, testing work products on the candidate’s ability to create original work and evaluate decisions. In keeping with best practices and Bloom’s theory, the new program progresses from a focus on knowledge to a focus on competency. All levels are required to progress and CEUs are required in the interim.

    3. Neal Kaplan

      Steven’s argument is based on a big assumption: that employers know what STC is. If they don’t, then a certification from STC will have no more value than any random online course (maybe less: I’ll bet that Coursera is more widely recognized than STC). Is there any data on this?

      Will the “HR drone” (ugh) give any weight to the certification, or will they be checking off the list of skills to see whether they match the ones listed in the job posting? Unless the hiring manager has flagged “STC certification” in the job requirement, it will matter less than that list of skills. Steven, you even noted that, at best, it might act as a tie breaker.

      Unless the STC can provide data that proves the value of these certifications (and the webinars, too), I don’t see how these projects can be successful.

      1. Liz Pohland

        We have already seen jobs posted to LinkedIn requesting CPTC certification. We expect that to grow and, of course, will be watching to see that it does.

  5. Tom Johnson (@tomjohnson)

    Do you know if other IT professions require similar certifications, such as for engineering, UX design, information architecture, etc?

    Honestly, it seems like the job market seeks candidates who have certain technical skills. It might be more valuable to be certified in Java (or something similar) than in technical communication.

    1. martinedic2016

      Tom, all of those disciplines have various certifications, generally for specific skill sets or tools rather than an industry-wide certification. Many of those certifications come from the companies who make the products they are certified on. For example, becoming an Oracle DBM (database manager) is practically a requirement in that sector and also means a higher position career-wise. Oracle certifies these users after an extensive training program.

    1. martinedic2016

      Nice to see a strong emphasis on structured content and DITA authoring solutions in the TCTrainNet course.

  6. David Kowalsky

    In the future, it would be nice to see an attempt to expand the list of educational events that qualify for the continuing education points. Why does it have to be all STC, when there are arguably some other high quality conferences out there that are worth attending? Examples: CMS/DITA, Write the Docs, and LavaCon.

    1. Liz Pohland

      Currently the only reason the list is mostly STC educational events is the administrative ease with which these can be tracked (within STC’s database). In the next few months, STC is upgrading its membership management software, and the capability to add outside courses and conferences will be added. In fact, we’re already discussing partnerships with other associations and certificate issuers to cross promote CEUs and credit. It’s in the works!

  7. Pingback: Four Years on the STC Board – A Review | Rant of a Humanist Nerd

  8. Pingback: Professional Certification for Technical Communicators | Technical Communication and EdTech Homepage

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