Unlocking the Power of Certifications

Graphic that shows woman in front of orange cyber abstract ready to unlock the power of certifications.

With the increasing focus on competencies and skills-based hiring, why are certifications frequently left out of those conversations? After all, one of the strengths of certifications is the process that is used to identify and assess occupational knowledge and skills. That process, a job task analysis, gathers input from subject matter experts about the skills, tasks, and competencies that are necessary in a specific occupation. This information is then validated with another set of subject matter experts before the certification assessments are developed by test and measurement experts to ensure that the questions measure the competencies identified by the subject matter experts. Furthermore, certification holders have third-party validation of continued competence because they are required to regularly renew their certification – a quality that particularly supports their use in skills-based hiring.

Why Are Certifications Underutilized?

With these characteristics, certifications should be an integral part of the conversations about how to identify candidates based on their skills and competencies. However, government survey records estimate that only 2-3 percent of the U.S. population holds a certification. With all of their strengths, why are certifications so underutilized?  

First, there continues to be a lack of understanding about the difference between certificates and certifications, as well as confusion about what competencies are represented. This results in uncertainty about the specific purpose of the credential and what the certification holder knows and can do.

Second, certifications can signal competencies from entry level to expert level, requiring individuals and employers to do some research on which certification is right for their needs. For example, some certifications are accessible to anyone, while others have educational or experiential prerequisites. Those with few or no prerequisites can more easily support entry into an occupation, while those with multiple prerequisites can aid professional development and promotion. However, because certification can represent different levels of expertise, individuals may require more knowledge to interpret them than other credentials.

Third, there are more than eight thousand organizations that award certifications. These organizations are typically industry or professional associations, government agencies, and employers. The sheer number of issuers, each of whom usually offers more than one type of certification, can also make it challenging to seek out which certification is the one to best support the goals of an individual or employer.

Finally, certification bodies are not required to publicly report their data on outcomes such as employment or wage gains. As a result, there is no third-party data about the outcomes for certification holders, limiting the ability of an individual to determine how a specific certification will support their career goals.

How to Help Certifications Reach Their Full Potential

To help combat these issues and help certifications reach their full potential, Workcred, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, and George Washington Institute of Public Policy proposed the following recommendations to address these challenges:

  • Collect better data
  • Bring certification bodies into the policymaking process
  • Format and store data in ways that facilitate use by all stakeholders
  • Certification bodies should improve their internal processes and practices
  • Governments and employers should encourage wider reliance on certification in hiring and efforts to make recertification more accessible
  • Education and workforce systems should engage more deeply with certifications
  • Governments and foundation should fund additional research on certifications

Certifications can be used to effectively signal an individuals’ skills and knowledge, thereby allowing employers to make better hiring decisions. And, they can be aligned with educational programs and degrees to create career pathways. But the true value and potential of certifications will not be unlocked until there is a focus on collecting better data needed by employers, college and universities, students, state and federal governments, workforce organizations, and researchers. Without this data, certifications will continue to struggle to meet their potential.

Read more about these recommendations to help unlock the potential of certifications in the report, Certifications: The Ideal, Reality, and Potential.

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