Upping the Ante: Professional Credentials and Small Business

A few days ago I was hanging out with Hank, the farrier, at the barn where I ride.  If you didn’t realize that farriers still existed, you might look at Hank and think he was an actor that played a blacksmith on a tv western.  Hank is huge.  His massive hand could palm my head like Julius Irving’s on the rock.  His grip could turn coal into diamonds.  Hank has grizzled dark hair that defies gravity in all directions, always wears dirty Carharts, and generally reminds me of Mr. Edwards on Little House on the Prairie.  He’s a great guy.  Anyway, Hank and I were relaxing while he was sharing a cold beer with his favorite horse, Master Tony.  Hank started to talk.  This was unusual.

Hank was upset about a topic one doesn’t usually associate with horse shoeing: the increased expectation of professional credentials – and how this was affecting his Small Business.  Apparently, as Hank schooled me, in the United States anyone can hang out a shingle and proclaim to be a farrier.  (A farrier is a tradesman who specializes in shoeing and hoof-care for horses and other equines.)  However, one can take a series of exams and become credentialed by one of three professional organizations.  Hank was grousing that too many newly-declared farriers were becoming credentialed, leading the public to believe they were expertly qualified in their trade.  According to Hank, who is not credentialed, many of these same farriers have little experience in handling a wide variety of horses and have difficulty actually performing the work in a timely manner.  To add to the confusion, the various credentials offered by these organizations are not equally as rigorous to acquire.  Many of the old-time farriers, working before the advent of this credentialing system, were now being viewed by the public as less qualified.  As a Small Business owner, Hank was wondering how he could compete.  (In an extreme example, one farrier with a doctorate in an unrelated field, like astronomy, listed “farrier, PhD” after his name on his business cards.)

This is a subject that must be stuck in people’s craw, because it came up again later in the week.  I was talking with Mike, a physical therapist.  He was upset because in the next year all newly graduating therapists will need a doctorate to be licensed to practice.  Mike graduated with his master’s degree several years ago, but went back to get his doctorate last year.  Even though Mike feels the doctorate did nothing to make him a better clinician, he felt he needed it to remain competitive in the marketplace in the the eyes of the patient, his customer.  As Mike says, “I didn’t want some fresh-out-of-school therapist who has never managed a patient load to be introduced as ‘Doctor,’  while me with my fifteen years of experience still be just plain ‘Mike.'” 

Now, I am not anti-education.  I am a full-on nerd with three college degrees that I worked old-school hard to earn.  But I think the issue here for Hank and Mike is twofold.  First is the issue of applicability: will these degrees or credentials really make them better at their jobs?  Will they add anything to the (meal) table?  My tally is as follows:  Degree #1: most definitely.  Degree #2: I could make a case for it.  Degree #3: Not even F. Lee Baily could make a winning argument.  Mike contends that his doctorate did nothing to add to his clinical skills.  If Hank gets credentialed, he will be tested on things he already knows, not learn new material, for the process, so he fails to see how this will make him a more competent farrier. 

Secondly, what is the toll of these (higher) education expectations on the small businessperson?  Hank will take his exams, but it will require a three-day trip and a hefty fee to do so.  That’s quite an expense for a small-town farrier.  Mike got his doctorate at considerable personal expense, and it took time away from his practice that he could have used for patient care or to develop other revenue-producing programs.  As all Small Business owners know, time and money are precious resources.  How much of them do we need to spend to maintain marketability? 

I would argue that even though Mike and Hank don’t feel their new credentials add to their skill set, they do add value to their Small Businesses. Whether we like it or not, we operate in a consumerist society.  Value is an intangible concept.  If the customer sees value, it is real.  Just like a muffin and cup of coffee purchased at a cute streetside cafe may not actually taste better than those grabbed at the Citgo while gassing up on the way to work, the patron may see it has more value, and therefore be willing to pay more, or chose that product over another. So it is with the credentialed vs. uncredentialed farrier, or physical therapist with or without a doctorate. 

What do you think?  Have you ever allocated your resources toward credentials that did not improve your product but added value in the eyes of your customer?

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