What Do Gen Zs and Millennials REALLY Think About Certification?

By Lenora G. Knapp, PhD, Knapp + Associates International, Inc.; Sandra Bauman, PhD, Bauman Research & Consulting; and Liberty Munson, PhD, Microsoft Worldwide Learning

Do you wish you could look into the minds of Gen Zs and millennials to better understand their thoughts and motivations related to professional credentialing? We did the next best thing to mind reading — we conducted a large-scale, national study of these generations.

The study included: (1) qualitative, exploratory research conducted online, asynchronously over a three-day period and (2) a survey of 2,003 respondents recruited from the general public (1,001 Gen Zs, age 18-22, and 1,002 millennials, age 25-35).

The research focused on the following key questions:

  1. What does the career journey look like for these generations?
  2. How will they acquire the knowledge and skills needed? How do they prefer to learn?
  3. How do these generations define “professional” success, and what factors are most important to achieving success?
  4. Do they think it is necessary to have their knowledge/skills validated in some way? By whom? Through what means?
  5. What type of credential features are most attractive to them?

This article discusses a selection of the data collected. Readers interested in the complete research findings obtain the full report by reaching out to Knapp & Associates International via email.

Research Findings and Takeaways

How do the generations view their career journeys? 

For Gen Zs and millennials, the career journey is seen as consisting of choices and uncertainty, opportunities and fears. The journey was most commonly depicted as a nonlinear one, consisting of multiple pathways or options. Millennials, in particular, expressed confusion about how to proceed.

Takeaway: The questions and confusion experienced during the career journey represent an opportunity for certifiers to more closely engage with professionals by providing programs and tools that help them to navigate their careers.

What types of experiences do millennials believe to be most helpful to their career progression?

As shown in Figure 1, work-related credentials have been helpful and will continue to be so as millennials move forward in their careers. These credentials are part of the mix, along with support from colleagues and supervisors/managers and formal education.

Takeaway: Assessment-based certificate programs, learning-based microcredentials, and mentoring programs sponsored by certifiers could serve as stepping stones in the career journey. Approximately half of millennials consider learning and mentorship programs to be helpful for their career progression. 


Figure 1

How valuable is a work-related credential in accomplishing career goals? 

The majority of Gen Zs and millennials believed that work-related credentials were very to extremely valuable (Figure 2). However, both generations considered work experience to be the most valuable factor in accomplishing their career goals.

Takeaway: The value placed on work experience by both generations (and also on degrees/diplomas by Gen Z) suggests certifiers should consider how to position their credentials vis-à-vis these experiences. For example, messaging might convey that certification confirms work-related knowledge and skills acquired through education and experience and hence, is part of a three-legged stool supporting employability and career success.


Figure 2

What do Gen Zs and millennials believe to be the most accurate methods for measuring their abilities?

Multiple-choice exams, the most commonly used measurement method in the U.S., was selected by only 7% of Gen Zs and 8% of millennials (Figure 3). Actual performance on the job and documentation of work-related accomplishments were cited as the most accurate methods.

Takeaway: Although these generations are interested in pursuing credentials, many may not believe the process will accurately assess their abilities. This could make certifiers vulnerable to competitive threats from organizations using methodologies directly linked to real activities at work. 


Figure 3

What potential benefits are most likely to encourage Gen Zs and millennials to earn a credential?

Benefits identified by both generations were quite similar. As revealed in Figure 4, career advancement and higher pay, followed by expanding one’s knowledge/skills, were the most frequently cited incentives to earning a credential.

Takeaway: For credential holders to experience the desired benefits of career advancement and higher pay, employers must be aware of the credential and see value in it. This finding reinforces the importance of employer outreach and demonstrating the value of certification to these important stakeholders.

Figure 4.png

Figure 4

What factors, besides personal benefits, have the greatest influence on the decision to pursue a credential?

Gen Zs and millennials responded similarly to this question (see Figure 5). The reputation of the credential, along with the time and cost associated with the credentialing process, are the primary influencers. Two notable differences between the generations were revealed: Gen Z was significantly more likely to cite “whether I felt I could succeed in earning it” as a factor in their decision making, while millennials were more likely to report that employer payment of the fees is a factor. These findings appear to be consistent with: (1) Gen Zs ambition and drive to succeed and (2) the personal financial challenges faced by millennials as a group.

Takeaway: Tangible and intangible personal benefits are often assumed to be the drivers of professional credentialing. Data from this study reveal that other drivers are as influential or more influential in the decision to pursue a credential.

Figure 5.png

Figure 5

What credential features do Gen Z and millennials prefer?

Figure 6 displays features often associated with microcredentials on the left. Features associated with certification are displayed on the right. Both Gen Zs and millennials preferred credentials which covered the full scope of knowledge/skills needed for a job. However, other features they preferred were associated with microcredentials, notably: personalization and the ability to acquire the credential as soon as knowledge/skills are acquired, without waiting for a designated point in one’s education or career.

Takeaway: The constellation of features preferred by both generations is most consistent with a credential model in which earning a series of microcredentials culminates in a certification.   

Figure 6.png

Figure 6

A Certifier’s Perspective

By Liberty Munson, PhD

As the psychometrician on Microsoft’s technical certification program, I was excited to be a part of this research and even more excited to see the results. For years, my leadership team has assumed certification was not valued by millennials and Gen Zs. These results suggest the opposite is true — these generations view certifications and credentials as a key component of important job-related outcomes (e.g., finding a job, getting promoted, making more money) and as a means for learning new skills.

At Microsoft, we’re starting to see some of these trends in survey data from our market (which is inherently a biased sample because we are asking individuals who already have or are seeking the certification to rate the value of it). To have these trends validated by an external source, using data from those who may not have a credential or certification, will make this story even more compelling to my leaders.

Digging a bit deeper into the results shows that while certification is valued, the way we, as an industry, are approaching measurement is not viewed by these generations as effective. Taken together, the message is clear — millennials and Gen Zs want a way to prove their skills, but we need to meet them halfway by providing nontraditional approaches to assessment based on the work they have done or are doing, rather than having them sit for a multiple-choice exam. Advances in technology are making these ideas plausible and well within our reach if only we would reach out and grab them.

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