Interview by Angel Candelario
The Society for Technical Communication (STC) inaugurated Alan Houser as its 52nd president at its Annual Meeting on May 21, 2012 in Chicago. Incidentally, the Certified Professional Technical Communicator credentials were available in May 2012. I received several emails and question through several Technical Communicators groups in LinkedIn regarding my opinion of this certificate.
It is because of my sense of responsibility to provide information as accurately as possible to the questions I receive, that I take the decision to interview Steven Jong, Chairman of the STC Certification Commission concerning this subject.
Very kindly, Steven share with members of Technical Writer In Action his knowledge related to the Certified Professional Technical Communicator (CPTC) credentials offered by STC.
TWIA: Thank you very much for joining me in this interview.
Steven Jong: It’s my pleasure, Angel! I appreciate the work you’ve done to make Technical Writer in Action a vital forum for our community.
TWIA: The purpose of this interview is to explore and analyze the recently certification that STC has available for technical communicators. I have some questions that may sound hard, but reflect the sentiments of some people regarding this certification. Would you be willing to answer these questions for the benefit of our readers?
Steven Jong: Certainly.
TWIA: When the CPTC program started and what is its purpose?
Steven Jong: Certification in our profession has been a topic of discussion and debate for nearly 50 years. In 2010 the Society for Technical Communication (STC) decided to offer certification. The STC Certification Commission was established in May 2011 to administer certification for technical communicators. We developed the Certified Professional Technical Communicator™ credential, and announced the first recipients in May 2012.
TWIA: Without any doubt STC have been a great source of professional information and viable jobs over the years but, Is there a certified list of organizations that say they recognize this CPTC credentials so much that having this certificate makes you a favorable candidate?
Steven Jong: Well, we have STC in our corner. STC is the world’s foremost professional organization for technical communicators, and their endorsement is a great start! Also, we have agreements in place with other professional associations to offer their members discounts on CPTC™ evaluation similar to the discounts STC members enjoy today. And yes, we have already seen “CPTC preferred” in job descriptions.
Expanding from these early adopters to general recognition will take time. Employers need to see the skill of our certificants; practitioners need to see a demand for certified applicants; and the public needs to know that certification is available. These are early days yet. But one thing leads to another.
TWIA: If a person have a Technical Communication degree (Bachelor’s degree, etc.) from an accredited institution; why they would need such a certificate?
Steven Jong: There are fine technical communication programs out there! But in today’s global economy, it’s possible that a prospective employer has never heard of the institution that granted your degree. Having an education in any field is important, but all new graduates quickly discover how hard it is to get a job without experience. And consider the other side of that question. Experience demonstrates what you have done, but not what you can do. Certification does not replace either education or experience. Instead, certification completes the package.
To apply for the CPTC™ credential, you must have a combination of education and experience. The evaluation looks at both what you can do and what you know how to do. The same standard is applied to all applicants. If you are granted the credential, you have earned it. Holding the credential tells an employer that you have the knowledge, skill, and ability to be successful as a technical communicator.
I’d like to mention one benefit of earning the credential even if you already have a job. Many practitioners I know are underutilized, working at a low-level writing job where they crank out procedures or reference pages. They were educated and trained to do more, and they are qualified for better, higher-paid jobs. But how can they show it? Earning the CPTC™ credential demonstrates the complete set of skills, knowledge, and ability needed to do the most demanding, high-value jobs in any area of technical communication. Earning the credential can open the door for you. It can also give you the confidence to step through that door.
TWIA: STC certification has been available for only a short time. Its value to the industry is just beginning to be tested. Does STC expect that recruiters take this certificate in consideration when hiring in a near future?
Steven Jong: In the near future, perhaps not. But in the future, we do, yes! In every professional field we’ve studied, certification is an advantage to job seekers. Just as important, hiring certified professionals is a good investment for employers, who in general pay a premium for certified employees.
If you’ve set up a profile on Monster.com you know that their database includes entries for your education, work experience, and certifications. The average job opening in the US attracts scores of applicants, and recruiters say they spend only a few seconds looking at each résumé. Certification stands out, and often makes the difference in who gets interviewed. Then, at the other end of the hiring process, when a hiring manager has to choose between several equally qualified candidates, certification is often the tiebreaker, because it’s an independent, objective, third-party assessment.
By the way, this is not wishful thinking on our part. This is what HR professionals and hiring managers say for certifications in general across hundreds of professions. There’s no reason to think things are any different for our profession.
TWIA: Some persons considered this certification expensive. How STC determined the cost of it?
Steven Jong: Certification is not just taking money and printing certificates. There are costs associated with the program. For example, we had to develop and validate a competency model, establish and test scoring criteria, train and compensate evaluators, and build the infrastructure of an organization. We also have to market the program to raise awareness. As our field evolves, we need to invest in the research to keep the program meaningful.
To price our certification, we looked at a range of other professional certifications, some of which are much more expensive than ours. The CPTC™ certification is in the middle of the price range. Incidentally, the cost for STC members is significantly lower.
But certification, like education, is an investment in yourself. The real question is what certification can be worth. A study of over 200 professional certifications, conducted in 2011 by the Foote Partners, found that certified practitioners earned on average seven percent more than their non-certified colleagues. That’s not a one-time bump but a yearly salary dividend. Of course, that’s no guarantee of the impact of our certification over time. But imagine your salary increased by seven percent going forward. Isn’t that a lot more than the cost of certification?
TWIA: I heard a comment from a Technical Communicator that this certification doesn’t have much value because it’s not given by an accredited university. This comment brings to my attention some certificates like PMP from the PMI Institute and Six Sigma from Motorola and other institutions. Those are very high valuable certifications among several industries. Is there a difference between CPTC and these other certificates in terms of their value to employers?
Steven Jong: The PMP certification is an excellent case study. It was established over 25 years ago. In its first ten years fewer than 1000 practitioners earned the PMP credential. But the Project Management Institute stuck with the program, and over the next ten years the credential gained widespread acceptance. Today over 400,000 project managers hold either the PMP or a related credential—considerably more than belong to PMI itself! And during the recent economic downturn, the number of practitioners applying for the PMP actually increased. Why? Because they know the value of PMP certification, and when times get tough they want that edge.
Is there a difference between the PMP and CPTC™ credentials? Of course. For one thing, PMI has a 25-year head start on us. For another, their profession is about ten times as large as ours, so we won’t reach their total numbers. But the principle is the same, our methodology is the same, and I think our opportunity, in proportion, is the same as well.
You mentioned accreditation. Certifying bodies can themselves be accredited. The largest accrediting organization is the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). The STC Certification Commission was established as an independent organization, following best practices for a certifying body. We are still too new to apply for accreditation. However, once we have a track record that can be audited, we are positioned to be accredited ourselves.
TWIA: This certificate requires work samples? How can this be accomplished if all material created for a company is proprietary?
Steven Jong: A submisson packet has to include samples of work (among other things). However, we’re not interested in the proprietary details of the products or services you’ve documented. We’re only interested in how you plan, execute, and produce your work. Samples can come from a previous job; they can be incomplete; they can be redacted. (Adobe Acrobat includes a redaction feature that’s good enough for the US Central Intelligence Agency, so it’s good enough for your employer!) You can also recreate or simulate work samples.
Packets are evaluated by trained evaluators working under nondisclosure agreements. Packets are stored on a secure website for evaluation, and then discarded according to our records retention policy.
TWIA: What style guide is used (if any) for the works presented?
Steven Jong: Your style guide; we are style agnostic. We are evaluating work done in English to North American market standards. You can live and work anywhere in the world, but if you’re documenting for that market, you can earn the CPTC™ certification.
TWIA: This certificate will benefit junior technical communicators only?
Steven Jong: No. We designed the CPTC™ certification for mid-career professionals. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of a skill. As it happens, our base requirement is five years of full-time experience, which works out to just about 10,000 hours. (If you hold a degree in certain specific fields, up to two years of that requirement is waived.)
TWIA: There are some concerns about the judges and the source of certification. After doing a little research I was able to find a website for the head of the commission Steven Jong which gave me confidence in his knowledge and abilities. How these judges were selected?
Steven Jong: Thanks! Certification is serious business, and we take it seriously. Evaluators are trained, compensated, and themselves evaluated to ensure accurate, consistent performance.
The selection criteria for the initial group of evaluators were actually much more stringent than for certification applicants themselves. Our evaluators average over 20 years of experience, hold advanced degrees, and in some cases are acknowledged experts in the field. Several are Fellows or Associate Fellows of STC.
As the ranks of certified practitioners grow, we are beginning to accept some of them as evaluators themselves. Eventually, holding the CPTC™ certification will be a prerequisite to become an evaluator.
TWIA: What advice would you give to those looking more information related to the CPTC?
Steven Jong: Go to our website, STCcert.org, for more information. Study the candidate instructions posted there to understand what is required. If you’re not thoroughly familiar with an area of practice, take a class, a course, or a seminar first. (STC and its chapters offer some excellent webinars, workshops, and programs! Other professional associations do as well.) If you still have questions, contact a member of the Certification Commission.
TWIA: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to members of Technical Writer In Action?
Steven Jong: I have spoken generally about the advantages and value of certification. Education is valuable, but earning a degree does not guarantee a job or a career. Similarly, we can’t guarantee that earning the CPTC™ certification will get you a raise, a promotion, or a job. It’s not a promise, it’s an opportunity. It’s up to you as an individual to take advantage of your opportunities.
Many of you in this forum already have established careers, a strong portfolio, and an enviable track record. To be frank, many of you, like me, are nearer to the end of your careers than the beginning. Certification won’t have much impact on our working lives, and so we are not in the target market. But today the program needs early adopters and champions. The certification can’t make some of you look better. But you can make the certification look better, and strengthen it, by applying and becoming certified yourselves. One thing leads to another.
Finally, even though it won’t help me personally, I believe strongly in the value of certification to our profession, now and in the future. Some of you reading this are in the target market, and certification will make a difference in your lives. I am confident that some day, some people reading this will look back and say that certification was the best thing that they ever did for their careers.