I coached high school basketball for a number of years. In the weeks before tryouts I was always approached by some kids who wanted to let me know that they were "really, really good," and that I should prepare myself to be very impressed. Often a father would be there to confirm that his son was indeed "really, really good." This exchange invariably guaranteed that the kid was really, really bad.
It isn't that they were trying to snow me; they truly believed they were exceptionally good players. The thing is, anyone who has actually played a lot of basketball by the age of 14 or 15 has played against people much older, bigger, faster, stronger and better than them and when asked about their game will shrug and say something like: "I handle the ball okay..." or "I can rebound..." The 9th grader who thinks he's a good player has played all his basketball shooting around in his back yard with his dad and kid brother and will never be a good high school player.
These days the same hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I see all the thousands of self-described SEM experts available for hire as consultants, full-time employees or as agency service providers. Many of them tout their years of experience and various certifications to support their claims to expertise.
However, the more someone talks about their years of experience the more I suspect they don't know much about SEM. Like shooting baskets in the back yard, you can spend as many years as you want playing "horse", but you'll never get to be a player until you get out into the competition and play with the big boys and girls. A good PPC analyst will instead talk about their approach to the complex problems presented by search, how they strike balances between competing objectives, and what problems they're still working on because they're really hard.
Unlike other professional service providers (engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects) there are no widely accepted board certification standards either. The Google Certified Professional training and Yahoo Ambassador training programs give no meaningful guidance on how to manage a program and simply require that people memorize facets of the UI (a waste of time) and learn the "best practices" established by the engines who have no experience with or interest in generating ROI.
Better certification standards may be on the way. The folks at Market Motive have put together an SEM Master Certification program that actually has teeth. They've solicited input and training materials from industry leaders, and the certification exam itself will be rigorous. Whether this program will become widely recognized for producing true experts in the field remains to be seen, but I applaud Market Motive for putting real thought and effort into designing the course.
In the great scheme of things, proof lies not in certificates and degrees but in results and capabilities. However, establishing some sort of knowledge base that any paid search professional should have might help retailers with hiring decisions and help raise the standards of service among agencies.