The Reality and Potential of Certifications

Workcred's Understanding Certifications Report Series Banner

A new series of reports co-published by Workcred, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, and the George Washington Institute of Public Policy serves as a resource to help policymakers, practitioners, employers, and funders better understand the characteristics of certifications and their potential to help people enter the labor market, obtain a career goal, or reskill for a new career.

Millions of American workers earn or have earned certifications—providing them in many cases with a high-quality credential that attests to their skills and assists them in finding jobs and advancing their careers. Now, more than ever, is an important time to increase the visibility and understanding of the value of and how certifications can play a vital role in addressing current workforce challenges and supporting lifelong pathways for advancement.

But what exactly is a certification? And how does it differ from other types of credentials?

“As the power of certifications continues to grow during a recovering and rapidly changing job market, we are thrilled to provide research derived from data that supports how certifications can be used to help individuals achieve personal and economic success, and how policymakers can develop policies that support increased usage of certifications,” said Dr. Roy Swift, Workcred’s executive director.

Understanding Certifications

The series launched with the December 2020 publication, Understanding Certifications, which revealed the complex and confusing landscape of certifications, possibly the least understood credential. Certifications are awarded based on an individual demonstrating, through an examination process, that she or he has acquired the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to perform a specific occupation or job. High-quality certifications are based on a third-party oral, written, or performance-based assessment, require a process to re-certify and are therefore time-limited, and can be revoked for proven incompetence or violation of a code of ethics. Certifications are not tied to completion of a program of study as are certificates.

This first report highlights how individuals who earn certifications and licenses fare better in the labor market at a time when enormous economic shifts predating and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic created a challenging job market. Among other information, the report also examines how certifications can be a valuable option for working adults and low-income populations.

Certifications as Tools for Promoting Economic Mobility

The next publication, Certifications as Tools for Promoting Economic Mobility, examines how the characteristics of quality certifications potentially make them useful tools for increasing the economic mobility of workers, expanding the talent pools for employers, and integrating certifications in credentialing and career pathways. It also examines the pitfalls of focusing on certifications primarily as quick-fix, short-term credentials to get people into a job.

The research supports a call for improved data collection and research on certifications and their outcomes, increased commitment to building a more interconnected credentialing system, and a greater role for employers in transforming this system.

Accreditation Standards – the Primary Source of Quality Assurance for Certifications

Accreditation Standards: The Primary Source of Quality Assurance for Certifications highlights the broad consensus by the certification community that quality certifications are those that align with conformity standards for personnel certifications and are developed specifically for certifications by members of the certification community. It also examines how the surge of new, non-degree credentials poses a challenge for individuals when determining credential quality and making decisions about how to value them.

Additionally, the publication outlines three recommendations for further improving the quality of certifications—make outcomes data publicly available, develop and adopt a certification quality assurance process that combines both process- and outcome-based approaches as described in the report, and ensure more transparency in the development process for certifications.

Recertification – a Distinguishing Feature of Certifications

Providing an overview of the recertification process, Recertification: A Distinguishing Feature of Certifications, showcases how recertification practices can vary among certifications and the extent to which it achieves its stated purposes. Given that recertification (also referred to as maintenance, renewal, or continuing competency) can help protect the public by ensuring holders have up-to-date knowledge and skills, the research asserts that understanding the recertification process will better enable the attainment and maintenance of certifications.

The report also provides several recommendations for improvements, including providing more data on the demographics and economic background of certification holders, ensuring equitable access to higher-impact recertification activities as described in the report and making recertification more accessible to all.

Certifications – the Ideal, Reality, and Potential

The final publication of the series, Certifications: The Ideal, Reality, and Potential, summarizes key findings that emerged during the project and identifies topics that warrant further research. It also offers several recommendations, including that certification bodies should improve their internal processes and practices, and governments and employers should encourage wider reliance on certifications in hiring. In addition, the report emphasizes that better data collection and distribution is a crucial issue that needs further attention. The report examines these problems in depth and offers specific ideas for addressing them.


To inform the reports, the project team conducted research from 2019-2021 on 16 certifications in cybersecurity, healthcare, information technology, and manufacturing. Recommendations from each report were informed by a literature review of certifications and the team members’ experiences working with the certification community.

Workcred hopes that everyone will use these important findings as workers, companies, and educators are all scrambling to make changes that help them adjust to rapidly changing labor markets during and after the pandemic.

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