by Anjali Weber
There are many types of credentials in the marketplace, and sorting through the various options can be confusing to the potential applicant or participant. Even greater confusion exists for employers, regulators, and especially the public as a myriad of “certifications” and designations are continually added to emerging and existing professions. But what are the differences between various credentials, and why does it matter?
First, the term “credential” can be broadly applied as the big umbrella under which certificate, certification, qualification, academic degrees, licensure, and registration all have a unique purpose. Second, there is a significant distinction between certificates and certification, and the right type of program will effectively satisfy stakeholder needs and accomplish desired business outcomes.
In this article, we will distinguish between certificates of attendance or participation, where there is no validation of learning, and an assessment-based certificate program, where intended learning outcomes are directly aligned to assessment. Our focus will be on a comparison between assessment-based certificates and personnel certification, as each serves a very different purpose, produces a different outcome, and fulfills different needs.
The differences can be critical to your business. Each type of program plays a role in closing skills gaps—a matter of international importance in today’s competitive business environment. Certification and certificate programs are part of a larger qualifications framework and help to address one of the biggest challenges the workforce faces today: providing the necessary skills and competencies to create qualified job candidates and successful employees. A 2009 annual talent shortage survey by Manpower of 39,000 employers in 33 countries found that 30 percent of employers worldwide are struggling to find qualified job candidates.
The traditional education system does not provide the necessary competencies for employees to succeed in the workplace. Many new college graduates fail to learn the knowledge, skills, and attributes that are most essential for success in their chosen careers. There is often a significant gap in knowledge and skills that must be addressed to make an employee workforce ready. But, the good news is that qualifications can play a major role in closing the gap.
So, what makes certificate and certification programs different? In short, a certificate program is a learning event. A certification program provides validation that learning has occurred and typically results in an awarded credential.
The primary focus of a certificate program is to provide instruction and training to aid learners in acquiring specific knowledge, skills, and competencies associated with intended learning outcomes. The primary purpose of a certification program is to confirm that an individual has already acquired (prior to applying for certification) a set of knowledge, skills, and competencies critical to the competent performance of a professional role or specific work-related tasks. Certification programs are independent of a specific learning event, class, course, or training program.
Purpose and scope of assessment
Both certificate and certification programs assess knowledge, skills, and competencies. However, the purpose and often the scope of these assessments are quite different. Certificate programs use formative and summative assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction or training, monitor learners’ progress, and determine whether learners have achieved intended learning outcomes. Certification program assessments aren’t intended to evaluate mastery of the intended learning outcomes of a specific class, course, or training program. Rather, these are designed to verify that an individual possesses the level of knowledge, skill, or ability necessary for competent performance of a specific professional role. As such, the scope of the certification assessment also is often considerably broader than that of a certificate program assessment.
Duration of program
A certificate program typically ends when the intended learning outcomes have been achieved and the certificate is awarded. This differs markedly from certification, which is an ongoing process that requires individuals to engage in continuing education or re-examination on a periodic basis to maintain their certification.
For a detailed comparison of certificate vs. certification, the Institute for Credentialing Excellence, a premier non-profit organization serving the global credentialing community, has published a white paper that has been extensively peer-reviewed and compares and contrasts each of the major components of both programs. This Defining Features paper can be downloaded at no charge from the ICE website.
Which option is best?
It’s a matter of intention. Is there a need to acquire education and training to fill a gap or to validate that the knowledge and skills required of a particular job role or profession have already been acquired?
Certificate programs address ongoing learning gaps and may be very limited in scope or broad-based. High-impact job functions that require mastery of technical skills that may not already exist can be addressed with well-developed education and training programs. These programs can provide an organizing framework for the learning process, encouraging the alignment of all the learning components and assessments and help to synthesize the learning.
Certification programs validate existing competencies. The primary goal is to confirm that an individual possesses a desired set of knowledge, skills, or competencies previously acquired through academic or other formal education, internal or external training programs, or prior work experience. A well designed certification program begins with a comprehensive job analysis that validates the essential knowledge, skills, abilities, and characteristics needed to competently fulfil a job role. Also, if mastery of the baseline knowledge, skills, or competencies is confirmed through certification, then future training does not need to include these basics. Rather, it can focus on what is unique to the industry or the employing organization (for example, products, services, and processes). In so doing, resources will be used more efficiently. Certification also provides independent validation that equals credibility, as it is offered through a third party and is not directly connected to a specific education or training program. Recognition of an individual’s knowledge, skills, or competencies through an external certification process enhances credibility and defensibility, and this benefit is valuable to the recipient and the employer. Because the intent is not to “teach to the test,” the outcome may carry more weight in many circumstances.
In summary, certification and certificate programs serve very different purposes and are not equivalent. Well-developed programs for either that follow best practices and accreditation guidelines provide good but unique value. It’s up to the customer, the employer that hires them, and the public they serve to determine whether they have a skills gap that needs to be filled or whether personnel certification would provide better confirmation that they have attained the knowledge and skills that have been independently verified.
About the author
Anjali Weber is vice president of strategy for Exemplar Global. She was previously director of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence.