by Peter Holtmann
Personnel certification has been around as long as standards have been written. The need for personnel certification has been debated for equally as long. So why is there still discussion about personnel certification’s pros and cons, the choices it offers, and its very value?
First, let me make my position clear, I am the president of a personnel certification body. In fact, RABQSA International is one the largest industry-focused personnel certification bodies that is independently operated and is accountable to its members. Even so, I want to be objective in this article. I was once a professional auditor who held third-party certification, and offered my services globally. I was acutely aware of the entry-level and ongoing requirements to certification for conformity assessment auditors.
Since those days, I have spent my time visiting committees, conferences, and government organizations to expound the virtues of accredited personnel certification. I have passionately presented to those within and adjacent to the conformity assessment industry why certification adds value and where one can see it demonstrated, and yet the suspicion of certification’s worth hasn’t diminished.
Am I a poor presenter (“not yet competent,” as my company would say), is there a fundamental problem in being able to attain certification, or is the recognition and relevance of certification never realized?
Personnel certification: Background
Let’s consider some history. International standards were created to facilitate world trade though the United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Governments were the first to implement them, as they sought to recognize the equivalence of products and services offered by other countries. In other words, if I allow the importation of toothpaste, would it meet all the requirements of toothpaste in my country, be safe, and be easily disposed of when consumed? Or, would the foreign toothpaste remove paint, wash the dog, and glow in the dark?
Due to the overwhelmingly vast array of products and services available, no government could oversee imported product inspection and test for conformance to dozens of national standards, so a deregulated approach was taken whereby industry was expected to demonstrate conformance or compliance to the international standards for product safety and appropriateness. Problem solved. Or was it?
Consider this example: Company A makes toothpaste with a typical list of ingredients. Company B wants to control market share and does this by reducing the cost of the product, which reduces the cost of goods and the product’s retail price. How does Company A reduce the cost of the goods? It chooses lower-grade ingredients, removes processing steps, limits finished-product inspection, and ends up with a product that resembles toothpaste, meets the standard’s requirements, and gives the consumer a “choice:” regular or glow-in-the-dark toothpaste.
As a result, the toothpaste manufacturers’ industry association agrees that the standard allows freedom of trade, expansion of choice, growth of revenue, and meets product requirements. But was this the government’s original intent? Some further regulation is required.
The genesis of the conformity assessment body/certification body/registrar was as a solution to standardization of products and services. Someone—an auditor—could come to the toothpaste factory and inspect the process to objectively determine conformance to a standard. This model reveals the importance of choosing an auditor. How do we choose an auditor? Know that he or she can audit to the standard? Know that he or she will audit the standard the same as the next auditor? How does the auditor know that he or she can audit that standard and as well as the next auditor?
If you work for a certification body (CB), then these matters are handled internally as part of its accreditation requirements. But what happens if the CB isn’t accredited, or if you don’t work for a CB? This leaves the auditor to demonstrate his or her own competence and value to the market. This sort of promotion happens on a job-by-job basis and requires the work of many to be done by one person—you.
But certification isn’t just about promotion and it’s not just about standardization of skill sets. It builds a fraternity of professionals that seek to further develop an industry sector, provide guidance and access to new people entering the field, identifies leaders in the field, and provides a career path with clearly defined markers for advancement.
If the choice is so clear that to be a recognized professional requires one to be assessed and certified, why don’t we have the whole profession certified? Some of the recurring reasons for this are cost, value, complexity, and recognition.
Cost is subjective and is considered differently from country to country. When compared with other professions, the entry price for personnel certification is low, no matter who you purchase it from. Certification should not be a free product. It should be about the attainment of a credential: something that’s earned with effort. Cost is rarely a barrier for professions such as engineers, medical professionals, aviators, attorneys, and financial professionals who recognize that certification costs are part of the expected pathway to recognition.
Value is a concept similar to “quality,” for which the definition is fluid and often linked to price. When questioned on what presents value in certification, very few of the thousands RABQSA has surveyed about it have either a concrete idea or an aggregate opinion. How do we tackle the concept of value if it is such an esoteric commodity? The answer lies in part in the next two points: complexity and recognition.
Complexity relates to the difficulty of the process of attainment. How many steps were involved and how clear was the process? When designing assessment methods, attention is given to the work function, level of risk presented when undertaking the work, and the knowledge and attributes needed to professionally perform it. It’s a mistake to one’s own professional experiences as a yardstick to create an assessment method for other auditors. How and why auditors hone their skills and techniques can be vastly different to the market’s expectations, which will largely govern assessment parameters. Careful attention to the requirements before embarking upon assessment will greatly increase the likelihood of attainment.
Finally, recognition. How come no one asks for my certification? Why do I carry this certification if the requirements are unchanging? Why don’t I see the level of outcomes improving around me? The answer to these questions is that conditions change all the time. Constant immersion in auditing can make an auditor somewhat detuned to the process around him or herself. For the feedback you need, you must refer to the industry as a whole and customers. RABQSA’s surveys indicate that the auditing industry agrees that change is occurring and that building better relationships with professionals will improve the quality of outcomes.
Recognition starts with an auditor promoting his or her certification to his or her clients. This kind of personal promotion combined with the personnel certification body’s marketing efforts highlights your competence to the global market.
Personnel certification: Moving forward
The concept of certification is changing. More industries are seeking out ways of finding measured value and demonstrated skills and are turning to Personnel certification bodies to assist them. The methods of assessment and certification are changing as well. The ability to choose your own exams and assessments that combine multiple job tasks, standards, and industry expertise is coming. The ability to define the length of certification and the types of recertification activities are at hand. Most important, auditors have the choice to become certified or simply demonstrate competence to discreet areas of a certification option.
In the future, personnel certification will be similar to a fingerprint: individual, unique, and intricately tied to the certificate holder, while still identifying him or her within a class of professionals sought out by industry.
Is certification worth revisiting, holding, and promoting? With future certification “fingerprinting” methodologies emerging, a greater recognition of value from the customer, and the ability to demonstrate adherence to standards from individual auditors to the international committees responsible for word trade; it clearly is.
About the author
Peter Holtmann is president and CEO of RABQSA International Inc. and has more than 10 years of experience in the service and manufacturing industries. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Western Sydney in Australia and has worked in industrial chemicals, surface products, environmental testing, pharmaceutical, and nutritional products. Holtmann has served on various international committees for the National Food Processors Association in the United States and on the Safe Quality Foods auditor certification review board.
Tags: personnel certification.