The Link Between Recertification and Competency: More Evidence Needed

Competent workers walking in office auditorium and discussing the differences in their recertification requirements.

One key distinction between a certification and other credentials is its ability to signal continued competence in a profession, making it the only credential that indicates its holders’ commitments to lifelong learning. This distinction is due to the recertification requirements which individuals must fulfill to maintain their certifications. However, there is significant variation in how different professions, and how different certification bodies even within the same profession, decide to handle recertification.

Most American professionals who hold certifications issued by industry or professional associations think of continuing education when they hear the word “recertification.” Aside from a relatively small group of certification bodies that require individuals to recertify on the basis of examinations alone, most certification bodies require some accumulation of hours of continuing education, training, or other professional development activities. Those who recertify often assume that the activities that result in the points or credits that are applied toward recertification resulting from continuing education have value—after all, we might assume that if a course is approved by a certification body for recertification credit, it must have educational value.

Yet, there is a striking lack of systematic data collection that speaks to the value of such activities. And, we do have reason to be skeptical of the value of some of the activities that individuals are using to satisfy renewal requirements. Credits for participation in continuing education courses, for example, may be awarded based on attendance—or, in extreme cases, even on the basis of registration for a course or event, with no follow up to ensure that attendance actually occurred. If an assessment of learning occurs in such courses, standards for passing the assessment are likely to be determined by the organization offering the course. Refusing credit for training would likely not be consistent with such organizations’ financial interests, yet Workcred, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce (CSW), and George Washington Institute of Public Policy (GWIPP) research (see report, Recertification: A Distinguishing Feature of Certification) found that oversight of training providers is inconsistent.

A lack of evidence supporting point or credit-based recertification schemes does not mean that recertification is not valuable; rather, it can be interpreted as a call to action to collect data that would justify current practices. Certification bodies themselves hold the key to generating evidence to support recertification in the form of data that can be analyzed to identify relationships between the choices individuals make in how they recertify and competency-related outcomes, such as disciplinary actions or voluntary assessments of the bodies of knowledge that should have been covered in recertification courses/seminars/conferences.

Weaknesses in recertification affect everyone: members of the public who rely on recertified individuals’ services potentially face greater risks of less effective or unsafe practices, certification bodies miss out on opportunities to help practitioners sharpen their skills, and certified individuals themselves may become overconfident in their abilities. With the right evidence to support decision making, we can imagine several approaches that certification bodies might take to enhance their continuing education offerings. If evidence suggests that the providers of courses for recertification credit have quality control issues, certification bodies could choose to partner with accredited higher education institutions. Research could also help mitigate some of the concerns that certified individuals have about increasing the rigor of recertification requirements, for example by helping organizations identify steps that can be taken to shore up recertification without increasing burden on certification holders. Moreover, certification bodies themselves could also use better data on the relationship between recertification and competence to potentially help address any deficiencies in the extent to which recertification requirements assure quality.

Thus, generating an evidence base for recertification and identifying ineffective practices should be a high priority for the small but growing community of researchers examining professional certification. However, researchers cannot build this evidence alone. They need help from funders of research, certification organizations that hold needed data, and certification holders themselves who can provide information about their level of competency after recertification.

For more on recertification, see the report Recertification: A Distinguishing Feature of Certification, or the related reports on certification.

Contributing Author: Kyle Albert, GWIPP

Kyle Albert is a sociologist who uses both qualitative and quantitative methods to study emerging alternatives to college degrees, such as professional certifications and certificates, and how those credentials contribute to inequality in organizations and labor markets. His research draws on sociological theory in the sociology of work and professions to explore the motivations of actors in the credentialing marketplace and the causes of the rapid expansion of non-degree credentialing in the United States in recent years, giving special attention to the effects of credentials for disadvantaged and older workers.

Prior to joining GWIPP, Kyle was a Sloan Postdoctoral Fellow on Aging and Work at Harvard University. He completed his Ph.D. in sociology at Cornell University, where his research was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

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