When we think of technical certification, most of us think of the seemingly endless jumble of letters that follow the names of information technology experts-MCSE, MCSA, A+, CCNA, etc. These certifications serve as standardized, objective validations that the person holding them possesses a certain set of skills and a certain level of professional competency.
In today's increasingly competitive business environment, however, certifications aren't just for "computer geeks." There are now a number of highly valuable certifications available in areas beyond information technology. If you are a work-at-home parent or a freelance professional in any field, investing the time and effort to get a non-technical or semi-technical certification can reap tremendous benefits.
Why get certified? I believe that there are three fundamental reasons for you to consider adding a professional certification to your freelance portfolio.
First, just like the classic IT certifications, holding a professional certification demonstrates that you are competent. It's one thing to state on your resume, website or promotional materials that you know how to use Microsoft Word, but it's quite another to state that you are a Microsoft-Certified Office Specialist in Word. The difference is just one passable exam, but to a business considering who to hire for a freelance word processing or data management project the difference is significant.
That brings me to the second advantage. As a freelancer (or the owner of an at-home business services business), being certified always gives you a "leg up" on the competition. This is particularly true if you are fairly new to the freelance market and haven't yet acquired an impressive list of satisfied clients. Holding a certification is a quick and reliable way of letting prospective clients know that you are a professional.
Finally, certification in a relevant field can enable you to parlay entry-level freelance jobs into more lucrative contracts. Data entry work, for instance, is typically one of the most available freelance opportunities; unfortunately, it is also usually the worst paying. Microsoft certification in Access or as a database administrator can help a data entry freelancer transition to a database design and management contract. Today, there are professional certifications to facilitate such a business development strategy for freelancers in virtually every field.
Here's a look at the best certifications for freelancers and work-at-home professionals.
The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) offers the most widely-recognized vendor neutral certifications in the world. As the name suggests, most of their certifications are in the IT field; however, many are valuable for freelancers of all stripes.
For general business services, including any type of consulting service, CompTIA's Project+ is invaluable. Project+, as the company's website states, is "a global credential that validates the knowledge required to effectively manage projects throughout the entire project life cycle." In addition to project management basics, the exam includes skills such as conflict resolution, negotiation, and team building. In short, holding Project+ certification demonstrates that you know how to do what the typical MBA graduate has only learned about. Yet, there is no academic requirement for the Project+, and the exam, though rigorous, is definitely passable for those willing to study. Sitting for the Project+ exam costs $207 USD, but you can almost always find discount test vouchers online for about $150.
CompTIA's e-Biz+ certification demonstrates a degree of proficiency in the concepts, issues and technologies of IT-enabled business processes. Don't panic, though-you won't have to memorize html code! Rather, e-Biz+ demonstrates knowledge of e-commerce, e-marketing and other issues related to maximizing the benefit of utilizing technology in a business environment. This certification could be highly valuable for freelancers and work-at-home professionals working as business consultants, or for those with Internet-based businesses. The retail exam fee for the e-Biz+ test is currently $225.
CompTIA also offers the i-Net+ certification. This exam covers Internet basics, web development, networking and security issues. Don't let the word "networking" scare you, though. This is a semi-technical certification that is of far more value to e-commerce and marketing freelancers than to network administrators. The i-Net+ exam currently costs $207.
You don't need to be a networking guru to benefit from the prestige and recognition of official Microsoft certification. The company also offers universally-recognized certification options for end users of the Office suite and Microsoft Project.
Microsoft Office certification is available at three levels. For certification as a Specialist, you must pass an exam in Word, Excel, PowerPoint or Access. That's right-you're just one test away from being Microsoft certified!
The next level is Expert certification. That requires the passage of a somewhat more rigorous exam. Currently, the expert-level tests are only available for Word and Excel.
To attain Master certification, the candidate must pass a total of four exams: Word 2003 Expert, Excel 2003 Expert, PowerPoint 2003 and either Access 2003 or Outlook 2003. That's a lot of tests, but holding Microsoft Office Master Certification can really set a freelancer apart in the eyes of a prospective client. Test vouchers for each Microsoft exam can be found online for approximately $70.
Like the rest of the global business climate, the world of freelancing and self-employment grows more competitive every day. Professional certification is not a panacea that will guarantee success, but it can certainly help you stay ahead of the competition and win new clients.
Sean Dunagan is the president of Pinnacle Associates (http://www.pinnacleassociates.50megs.com), a web-based resource for freelancers and work-at-home professionals.