Certified to Work

In an increasingly uncertain job market, adult learners will need alternative educational avenues to cultivate skills of most value to employers—including those that lead to professional certification.

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THE LONG-TERM economic and financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis is still largely unknown, but professionals in all industries have begun to feel the effects. Unemployment claims in the U.S. surged throughout the month of May, as businesses were forced to lay off and furlough employees—some even suspended operations or closed altogether. As we enter a global recession, it’s likely that at least in the short term, professionals will be reexamining their lives and considering career changes.

During an economic downturn, the prospect of upskilling can be especially appealing. Professionals might look to update their skills to align with or stay ahead of changes in the workplace. The sudden digitalization of the workplace, in which so many have been forced to work remotely, has challenged workers who are not as technologically competent as their fields might require.

Historically, upskilling has often been accomplished through formal business school education. But academic institutions have not been shielded from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a survey from the American Council on Education, the majority of university presidents predict that their schools will see drops in summer and fall enrollments, and they worry about the long-term financial viability of their institutions.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they plan to lay off staff, and some colleges have already announced closures. And as students and faculty struggle to adjust to the new normal of remote learning, it remains uncertain how long universities will continue remote operations.

Offering more short-term educational pathways to adult learners is one way universities can maintain their financial bottom lines through the upcoming recession. First, programs that prepare students for professional certification credentials are often more easily delivered online. This format will continue to appeal to workers who are concerned about contracting COVID-19, and so will be particularly interested in programs delivered fully online. Second, because traditional business school education might not be financially accessible for adult learners, they still are likely to seek out more cost-effective, flexible options.


According to a global survey of more than 1,000 finance and accounting professionals by IMA (Institute of Management Accountants), more employees are viewing professional certifications as a way to prepare for a shifting business environment. Many professionals value certifications for helping them quickly develop skills in strategy, ethical decision making, and financial planning and analysis. They also note that certifications help them achieve greater skill versatility, resourcefulness, adaptability, and technological competence. These traits are increasingly valued by employers, especially those that have had to cut costs by laying off staff.


Studies show that for 40 percent of organizations, certification credentials are important factors in promotion decisions. This tracks with the finding that more than half of finance and accounting professionals believe professional certifications offer employees opportunities to cultivate transferable skills that will give them an edge in the job market.

In particular, these professionals seek out programs that help them show evidence of their strategic, analytical, and ethical capabilities. Often this means pursuing credentials to become CMAs (Certified Management Accountants),CFAs (Chartered Financial Analysts),CIAs (Certified Internal Auditors) or CPAs (Certified Public Accountants) .

Research also shows that an organization’s support of professional certification correlates to improved performance, especially in fields such as finance, accounting, and technology. Furthermore, the mass shift to remote work has placed a greater emphasis on individual problem-solving and strategy. In supporting and promoting certification programs, organizations can ensure their workers are developing practical strategic skills.


Business schools can also capitalize on this accessible, convenient form of education. By offering certification programs in areas of most value to employers, business schools can play a crucial role in preparing adult learners. They can begin by partnering with professional associations to ensure students receive both departmental and association support in their pursuit of a certification.

For example, Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Business in Provo, Utah partnered with the IMA’s Higher Education Endorsement Program to help prepare students in its management accounting curriculum to take the CMA exam. As a result of that partnership, BYU Marriott has produced more CMA candidates than any other business school (35 percent more than the school with the next largest number), and its students have achieved an 83 percent pass rate on the CMA exam.

BYU Marriott’s success with the CMA can be at least partly attributed to its partnership with IMA, though there are other strategies business schools can employ to ensure their students’ pursuit of certification is adequately supported.

Additionally, a curricular emphasis on exam preparation can be a mechanism through which business schools support their students’ credentialing goals, and statistics show that this emphasis can have an impact on certification exam success.

BYU Marriott’s recognition that certifications provide an outsized benefit to students does not end with the CMA, as its curriculum also prepares students pursuing the CPA certification, carrying the highest first-time pass rate among large collegiate programs in 2018.


This focus on certification preparation is mirrored in other programs as well. Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business, located in East Lansing, Michigan, produces the greatest number of CPAs in the state as a result of its accounting program’s emphasis on exam preparation. Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, incorporates CPA exam review courses into its Masters of Accountancy (MAcc) program, leading to consistently high CPA exam pass rates for MAcc students. As evidenced from these institutions, when schools tailor programs toward certification exams, their students can reenter a workforce prepared to meet the challenges that certifications address.

Time-sensitive and cost-effective educational programs have become particularly well-suited to the needs of adult learners and employers. Business schools will best serve the market via programs that help students reap the benefits of both degrees and certifications.

As professionals enter an economic downturn and an uncertain labor market, certification, now more than ever, can make the difference in whether they join the ranks of the unemployed or continue to thrive.


Dennis Whitney is senior vice president of certifications, exams, and content integration at the Institute of Certified Management Accountants, a division of Institute of Management Accountants based in Montvale, New Jersey.


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