Industry POV: Embracing Certifications And Continuing Education

Finding the nexus of formal training and real-world practicality.
desk with stacks of books and a cup of tea

Experience or continuing education? Both inside the AV industry and in the world at large, there seems always to be a tension between the two. Television personality Mike Rowe spends his time doing dirty jobs and preaching the value of trade schools over four-year degrees; meanwhile, the formal education system continues to grow with the cost of tuition. There doesn’t have to be a winner or a loser, however; rather, it’s a healthy mix of both. As it relates to the AV industry, certification continues to provide value to individuals and companies alike, whether they’re just curious or highly experienced.

Learning On The Fly

In 2012, I was tasked with balancing a radio-frequency (RF) video-distribution system for a football stadium we were installing. However, I had never done anything like that before. I flew to Minneapolis MN for a three-day RF-certification class, and I returned—meter in hand—ready to do my best. The response I got from the university communications director was not encouraging.

“I’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive, and no weekend class is going to help,” I was told. I’ll agree that it took me several days just to figure out which way was up and really to start to make any progress; however, the result was a well-balanced system that passed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) testing and that continues to hold up.

It’s impossible to deny the value of certification. On the surface, certifications open up opportunities. Individuals who earn their Certified Technology Specialist (CTS), Project Management Professional (PMP), etc., have more career options available to them. Companies are beginning to add certification requirements in their job postings and promotion criteria with the expectation that, after several years with the company, you will have learned something since you started and you’ll have a piece of paper to prove it.

Organizations benefit from certifications, too, because many bid opportunities require an AV Provider of Excellence (APEx) certification from AVIXA, along with a Certified Technology Specialist–Design (CTS-D) designer and a CTS project lead on the job.

The Long-Term Value Of Education

Certifications provide a greater, longer-term value, though. The generational legacy of certification is prosperity. A four-year degree requires a lot of time and money and entails acceptance based on past performance (i.e., your grades in high school). By contrast, entry-level certifications like the CTS or Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) allow motivated individuals to put in time studying coursework, get a healthy but not outrageous amount of real-world experience and attain a certification that attests to their gained knowledge.

Certifications help people to understand that they can alter the direction of their lives, rather than waiting on others to feed them knowledge. With certifications, people can continue to learn and grow. This aligns with parents’ nearly universal valuing of education and, as a result, their valuing of books, learning and personal growth. Certifications propagate continued applied learning generation after generation. In that way, they can alter the trajectory of a person or a family for the long term—far longer than the initial stress of studying for an exam.

Adult-Focused Education

“Andragogy” is a term that refers to how professionals learn, and it’s quite different from the methods directed at children and young adults. Malcolm Knowles developed the six principles of adult-focused continuing education, and his concepts still apply. They are especially germane to certifications.

  • First, adults must know why something is important (both to them and to the company requesting that they learn it) before they can buy in and support it. Without a reciprocal and meaningful benefit, the effort won’t be there.
  • Second is a base level of experience. Formal education is most effective when the information adds onto existing knowledge, as opposed to being completely foreign.
  • Third is self-concept. This is the idea that adults learn best when they’re accountable for their education. If an adult doesn’t take it seriously and fails, he or she is the biggest loser. (And, of course, the opposite is true if the adult achieves success.)
  • The fourth principle, readiness, is how immediately applicable newly learned information is. Solving problems at work using information recently gained is a big motivator for learning new skills.
  • The fifth principle—problem orientation—is similar in that specific content is more important and more inspiring to action than generic, broad educational content is.
  • The sixth, and arguably the most important, principle is intrinsic motivation. You can’t teach someone to care about his or her own career path or education. For more on this topic, I highly recommend Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth.

Continuing Education + Experience

Let’s put it all together. Formal education provides the best approach to learning a skill. That skill could be soldering a connector or managing a high-profile project; in either case, figuring it out on the job leaves room for unnecessary risk. Start by learning the most formal, most rigid way to perform a task (education) and then determine what applies and what doesn’t when you go about your task in the real world (experience). This real-world, practical guideline blends the best of both approaches.

In the end, only you are responsible for the quality of your work. I urge you to embrace continuing education and take the time to learn something new. Then, put it into practice. You (and the generations that succeed you) will be better off for you having done so.

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