The range of training and qualifications freelancers and small business owners can obtain is vast. The question is, should you spend the time and money getting these qualifications gains you more work or customers?
One of the top three questions I get asked by new freelancers is what qualifications they should get. The last time I took any formal training was back in the mid-1980s. Since then, I haven’t felt the need to take any additional formal qualifications or training. I wanted to find out if my experience was typical across the freelance and the small business community.
Clearly, for some roles, a proficiency or level of competence is needed. It’s the attitude of employers to paper qualifications – especially from younger freelancers or business owners – is the most intriguing question to answer.
“Experience should be a major factor because with this comes experience of client communication, meeting deadlines, overcoming problems against tight time limits,” said Richard Grace, creative director of Grape Graphic Design. “Younger freelancers will often have more qualifications but this should not put older freelancers at a disadvantage. It is important that the industry and business world respects the change in culture.”
Chase Geiser, a digital marketing expert, based in the US, says: “I am a big believer in learning by doing and my personal philosophy is sceptical of the importance of certifications. I think that taking online courses and going through certification processes is a great thing for beginners to do when trying to wrap their head around a new tool or field. However, freelancers have to be careful because there are a lot of online certification programs that teach outdated or inaccurate information.”
How employers view the qualifications, you may hold also needs to be considered. “This will really depend on the freelance project’s parameters,” explained Erica Wolfe-Murray, who works across the creative, cultural and tech sector. She is also the author of ‘Simple Tips, Smart Ideas: Build a Bigger, Better Business.’
“If the job requires high levels of technical and professional competence, as an employer, you want both: the qualifications and the experience. However, if qualifications are not important to the outcome, you want experience, both creative and practical. You want to take someone on who really knows their onions.”
Understanding what a prospective employer is looking for is critical for all freelancers and small business owners. Often this isn’t a specific qualification, as Simon Squibb, freelancer, ‘serial’ entrepreneur and angel investor who left school at 15 with a handful of GCSEs and now guest lectures at Harvard & Imperial Business School.
“I once owned an agency, recently sold to PwC, that hired hundreds of designers and often those freelancers had qualifications, but it didn’t necessarily mean they were good designers,” Simon explained. “By the end of our recruitment process, we cared more about the ability and less about any sort of qualification that people would hold in their hand and wave around. Certain things, such as awards won, or recommendations were always so much more important to me as an employer than someone’s qualifications.”
Whether a qualification is a pre-requisite will often depend on the job. “In terms of full-time employers – yes,” said Christina Rotonda, who works as a freelance vocalist. “I’ve also worked in the media and PR industry, and even though my degrees weren’t necessarily directly to do with the jobs, it helped me to get that job. In terms of freelance clients – It depends on your clientele. In the music industry, especially, I work with a lot of producers who I’m not sure have any qualifications but are passionate about music and creating. They’re looking for someone with the right voice for their track, rather than qualifications.”
Qualify or not?
It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking more qualifications equals more work for your small business or as a freelancer. There is no direct correlation between the two.
“Whether you are racking up the qualifications, the certified skills or just the experience, what matters more than anything is you understand what your value is in addition to these,” Erica Wolfe-Murray continued.
“There is no point in having qualifications, skills or experience if you cannot deliver the output the client wants. So, take time to map the extra value(s) that your journey to here gives you for that particular project and ensure you emphasise it. Companies buy me because they cannot find anyone else, bringing them the value and experience that I do. You need to build a similar offer for yourself.”
Indeed, over qualifying in Simon Squibb’s view can be a hindrance: “My view is that qualifications if done incorrectly, can actually end up trapping you into a role or job that you don’t enjoy. The most important thing is not the qualification that you get but, enjoying what you do and, more importantly, defining your skills. I think you learn so much more by on-the-job experience than you would ever learn in a classroom, in my view qualifications are sometimes are misleading verification of your ability.”
Perhaps we need to make a distinction between a qualification and a skill. Learning something specific to help you achieve a particular goal for your business clearly has value.
Declan Maltman, a drop shipping expert, explained: “To save me the cost of paying for online courses and learning it all from scratch, it would have been helpful to qualify graphic design as it’s a specialist skill. In this aspect of my work, paying for an online course was worth it as it allowed me to upskill, and now, I earn more because of it. There are so many resources out there like the Fiverr Learn courses as well as YouTube tutorial videos that I use to continue learning today. The more I learn, the better quality my work gets and in return, the more clients I get.”
Kirsty Nutter, an animation specialist, holds BTEC (Distinctions) in Media Studies and, a First Class Honors BA degree in Television Studies yet is never asked what qualifications she holds by prospective clients.
“I personally don’t feel any qualifications are important as such for freelancers to obtain. My qualification was in television, and I was never taught the animation skills I use today through this specific degree. Not a specific qualification but a degree or course where you can obtain work experience in your relevant field is important, I believe. I gained an insight through work experience as a multimedia developer at an eLearning company. Through this, you can connect with relevant people, gain knowledge, work on practical skills and strengthen your portfolio. However, this can all still be gained following different paths.”
The formal qualifications you may hold already can form a foundation onto which you can build a small business or freelance career. However, taking qualifications or even training without a clear motivation and outcome in mind could drain your resources. Think carefully about the skills you need. Often, your innate ability will be enough.