Understanding Certifications

By CSW, GWIPP & Workcred – published Dec. 2020 in WorkcredSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

This 19-page report addresses “how certifications can play a pivotal role in addressing re-employment, re-deployment, and re-education challenges that workers face in the current labor market . . .” It is a clearly written, succinct overview of the world of certifications.

The world of certifications is an extraordinarily large and difficult-to-fully-understand world where “many employers, workers, students, policymakers, and education and workforce development practitioners know little about the use and value of certifications.”

Certifications are often confused with different types of credentials, such as badges, degrees, and licenses.  The following definitions help to clarify the world of certifications:

  1. Apprenticeship certificates – Work-based learning and/or postsecondary earn-and-learn models. 
  2. Certificates – Where learners fulfill requirements mandated by a program of study provided by an institution or organization.
  3. Certifications – Credentials awarded by certification bodies (nonprofit organizations, professional associations, industry/trade organizations, or business-based) to individuals who prove, through an examination, that they have gained the necessary requirements to perform a job. 

Seven Reasons Why Certifications are Important in Today’s Labor Market

  1. Rapidly changing work environments and industries, along with pandemic-caused work displacements, have created an increased need for individuals, particularly low-income workers, to seek certifications that employers desire in their job candidates.
  2. Earning a certification can often be a short-term path to a job.
  3. Some certifications are updated regularly to new standards in a dynamic labor market.
  4. Certifications indicate credible evidence of competencies employers seek.
  5. Individuals who have earned a certification are more likely to be employed and compensated more than those who have not earned a certification.
  6. Instead of relying solely on degrees, employers recognize that certifications with transparent competencies help them identify qualified job candidates.
  7. “Credentials can be counted as ‘credentials of value to employers’ for purposes of federal and state workforce accountability systems.”

Nine Dimensions of a Diverse Certification Landscape

  1. Purpose – Some certifications evaluate foundational skills that multiple industries seek out in their entry-level employees. Other certifications are national- and state-level in scope and are tied to specific licensures. In addition, individuals who have earned some credentials are often identified as professionals of distinguished status within various fields.  
  2. Certification Bodies – Industry and professional associations, along with companies, such as Microsoft and Google, issue credentials.
  3. Utilization – How employers from a wide variety of industries recognize certifications for hiring varies greatly. 
  4. Value – “While research suggests that certifications are associated with economic benefits, the likelihood of being certified and the earnings premium associated with holding a certification differs by race, ethnicity and gender.” 
  5. Cost – The cost to earn a certification varies, ranging from under $100 to thousands of dollars. 
  6. Quality Assurance – Third-party accreditation agencies can provide quality assurance for certifications. “However, only approximately 10 percent of the certification bodies in the United States are accredited by a third party to meet a nationally recognized standard.”
  7. Competencies Represented – Competencies attached to credentials vary. Much of their validity comes from whether they are consistently updated to reflect current practice. 
  8. Eligibility Requirements – Prerequisites, which impact the time it takes to earn a certification, may need to be met before taking a certification exam. These typically include educational and/or work experience requirements.  
  9. Examination and Recertification Processes – These also differ. Test items, for example, need to be consistently reviewed, and other factors come into play, such as ensuring that exam standards mirror current skill and knowledge conditions. Additionally, the pandemic brought about other exam administration challenges that were related to conducting exams in an online environment and online proctoring.

Certifications and Educational Programs
“The relationship between certifications and other educational credentials at the high school and postsecondary levels, in career and technical programs in academic programs, in apprenticeship programs, and as co-curricular activities is complex, with many examples of both effective practices and barriers to implementation.” 

For example, aligning certifications with academic courses or programs is often easier to accomplish within non-credit programs that typically have more flexible administrative planning and approval processes. 

In addition, policies related to awarding credit for prior learning (CPL) that can be specifically attached to prerequisites (making it easier and less costly for learners) are frequently not brought into the big picture when attempting to earn a certification. 

Another issue relates to earning stackable credentials in credit-bearing programs as they relate to certifications, whereas sometimes they are “confused with other stackable credentials such as digital badges, micro-degrees, certificates, and other non-degree credentials.”  

The Future
Certification bodies, employers, unions, education and workforce development professionals, policymakers, workers, learners, education institutions, and foundations – all play important roles in the further development and support of certifications. Rapid technological change, the impact of the pandemic, world economies, relatively large labor market changes – these are all drivers of transformational changes that are creating new ways to navigate the future world of certifications.