At a bare minimum, use the dollars available from your employer to maintain the credentials you have, or to acquire one. It doesn’t matter that you have funding available if you don’t use it.
TIPS TO MAKE MAINTAINING YOUR CREDENTIAL EASIER
CREDENTIALS TAKE TIME AND MONEY
I tend to be very deliberate when I pick a certification to pursue. There are lots of certifications out there, but part of the trick is knowing which ones to go for, and which ones would be better left unacquired. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great certifications out there, but each one has an initial cost, as well as costs in time and money in order to maintain it. I have a limited budget of both time and money, so when I’m trying to get my continuing education units, I want them to be as multi-purpose as I can get. That way, I can use the synergies between credentials and apply continuing education units (CEUs) to multiple certifications. This makes the overall cost of ownership for each certification go down.
EXTEND YOUR MAINTENANCE WINDOW
With any new certification once you’ve passed the exam, take a moment to celebrate and relax and bask in your accomplishment. Then, since you’re already in study mode, get back to work to earn the CEUs quickly. This will capitalize on your mindset of studying and also extend your maintenance window. Instead of procrastinating earning those hours, you will have front loaded your study cycle, which effectively prolongs the time you have to maintain your credential. Many credentials are on three-year cycles. If you continue studying, and knock out all or most of the required CEUs quickly, you have effectively made it (paying the renewal fee excepted) so that you have six years before you need to worry about those hours again.
For example, the first certification exam I sat for and passed was the Project Management Professional (PMP) from the Project Management Institute. This credential is a very good general all-around sort of credential. It shows you’ve got several years of project management experience, and that you’ve made an effort to standardize your vocabulary into terms and phrases that are applicable in many industries. The PMP is a great “gateway certification”. It is recognizable in many career fields and has the bar set high enough you can’t just walk through the door, take the test, and walk out with a few new letters behind your name. The requirements are higher then that, but low enough that with a basic amount of experience and studying one can sit for and pass the exam. Its great advantage of being generally applicable is countered by the weakness that it is in many regards too general, and many industries require more specialized knowledge.
When I first had my PMP, I worked for a company that, among other things, provided project management training. Getting professional development hours was very easy and straightforward. When work was slow for a day or two, I would check if there was a class we were offering that wasn’t full. If so, I’d sit in and enjoy the class, then apply the hours on the certificate toward maintaining my PMP.
HOW DO I BENEFIT FROM MY COMPANY’S PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT FUNDS?
My next career stop wasn’t so easy when it came to maintaining credentials. In fact, I think it’s the situation that most professionals are in. My work had a professional development budget that we were allowed to use annually, but we didn’t offer courses. So, I had money to pay for courses, but I had to find outside sources and courses that fit within my budget, as well as my schedule. It’s certainly doable, and is the situation where most people find themselves in. I am still in this situation, and have several years of experience with it. I’ve discovered that there are ways to maximize what I get out of professional development courses. Here’s what I’ve learned.
I’ve found that there are some ways that are better uses of a professional development budget than others. Companies provide professional development dollars for a lot of reasons. Professional education benefits provide employers several advantages: they’re used to attract employees, they’re a business expense, frequently they’re a “use or lose” format which makes them either a writeoff for taxes or greater profit for the owners, they can lead to greater satisfaction of employees, they lead to more certifications and competencies within the workplace (which leads to more business), etc. In the most basic form professional education leads to more satisfaction among employees, a lower corporate tax burden, and greater corporate competency. It’s a win-win proposition. The bottom line is this: Employers WANT you to use the funds they give you for professional development. Regrettably, most employees don’t take advantage of this perk.
FIGURE OUT HOW TO USE YOUR EXISTING BENEFITS
At a bare minimum, use the dollars available to maintain the credentials you have, or to acquire one. It doesn’t matter that you have funding available if you don’t use it.
My professional career has benefited and grown directly due to using my company’s professional development program.
HOW TO FIND CONTINUING EDUCATION HOURS FOR FREE
The second stage of credential maintenance is finding continuing education hours for free, in order to use the funding you have to attend a course you really want or to pay for another certification. This is a generally straightforward process. It starts by becoming familiar with the credentialing organization’s requirements for credential maintenance. Typically there are self-study options. One of my favorite self-study techniques is reading a book that’s relevant to my credential. I can then apply the time reading toward maintaining my credential. I also browse the continuing education trainings available on the organization’s website. These often require paying a fee, but frequently there are free options intermingled with the others. If you can sort the offerings by cost, it helps highlight trainings you can take for free. In addition to the free classes, I have found other courses that have sounded interesting. A third method I use is seeking free trainings offered by closely related organizations. Identifying the relationships, then searching the other organization for training resources can be of great benefit. Another overlooked option for finding free professional development hours is in the mandatory and volunteer trainings that your job requires. Most credentialing organizations require a certificate or proof of training in order to get credit for sitting through a course. If there’s not a certificate offered, speak with the trainer before the class begins and explain your situation. Frequently they will be willing to accommodate and will pass a sign-in sheet around for those wanting a certificate of completion. This is especially valuable for multi-day trainings.
MULTIPLY YOUR EFFORTS
The third stage is close behind the second stage and is stacking your efforts so that the efforts you place toward maintaining one credential or certification will apply toward two or more. This of course requires you to have more than one certification. But, this isn’t a bad thing, as you grow in your career you’ll naturally want to expand your knowledge and benchmark it for others to identify. Generally there will be overlap between credentials you choose to pursue and attain. If you study the credential maintenance requirements for both credentials, you’ll discover areas of overlap. Once you’ve done that, you can target trainings that will meet requirements for both. Even if the alignment isn’t perfect, you can frequently extract a few hours for each. For example, an 8 hour course may be completely applicable to one credential, but only have 3 hours of relevent training for another. This is a great opportunity if you choose to identify it! Often, we can get so focused on certain points, we fail to look at the bigger picture, and miss out on these secondary CEU opportunities because of it.
WORK HARD AND WORK SMART
The last stage in credential maintenance is selecting your CEU courses by personal interest. This will mean that you’ve built up a buffer on the maintenance intervals, and can be very selective on courses to fill in knowledge gaps, expand your personal interests, or fulfill professional needs. This last stage is a great place to be. It shows that you enjoy your career and take pride in what you do, but also recognize that others have things to offer. Reaching this last point in credential maintenance makes your efforts personally and professionally satisfying and seemingly effortless. It means that you’ve worked hard, but also worked smart. Through the process to reach this point, you’ve probably come to realize that working hard is important, and working smart is important, but combining them together is where the true secret of success is.
MAKE OFF-SITE TRAININGS FUN FOR YOUR FAMILY
One final point: attending off-site trainings can be a great way to squeeze a few additional vacation days for your family out of a busy professional schedule. Any rational employer recognizes that your place of employment is in class when you’re taking a training course. If the course is several hours or hundreds of miles away from home and you throw in a few of your own vacation days into the mix, your family can have a great trip for the small disadvantage of having dad in class for 2-3 days(with evenings free). I’ve had memorable 8 day vacations, and only burned 2 vacation days to do so with this technique in conjunction with a 3 day course. I’ve discovered that when these off-site trainings are available, my family really enjoys coming with me and loves to report at the end of the day all of the great experiences they had while I was in class.