Certifications are a type of credential awarded by certification bodies—typically nonprofit organizations, professional associations, industry and trade organizations, or businesses. Certifications are awarded based on individuals demonstrating, through an examination process, that they have acquired the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to perform a specific occupation or job.
Depending on the certification body, these credentials may be called industry or professional certifications. Although training may be provided, certifications are not tied to completion of a program of study—as are certificates. Certifications are time-limited and may be renewed through a re-certification process. In addition, some certifications can be revoked for a violation of a code of ethics (if applicable) or proven incompetence after due process. Accreditation organizations verify that certification providers and their partners meet certain standards. Accreditation is voluntary.
Certifications tend to be accessible to a relatively broad swath of students because they typically take less time and money than a degree program and are more flexible than such programs. Many businesses offer industry-specific certifications—especially in manufacturing, trade, and information technopogy (IT). Examples include offerings at Amazon and Google. Because of this alignment with the workforce, those who hold certifications often gain easier access to career pathways.
There is growing interest in embedding or more closely aligning certifications with degree programs. While yet to be proven, earning a certification while pursuing a degree may help narrow the attainment gap for underrepresented students. Some programs also allow students to earn college credit for a certification earned before enrolling in college, thus giving students a head start toward graduation. Additionally, a student who stops out or leaves college without a degree—but with a certification—could improve his or her job prospects. The strategy of embedding or aligning certifications and bachelor’s degrees to create certification-degree pathways offers numerous benefits for students, certification bodies, higher education institutions, and employers. Certification-degree pathways provide students with a broad-based education and industry-specific skills that hiring managers seek. Certification-degree pathways also benefit certification bodies, as these pathways can increase awareness and attainment of certifications and help show how certifications fit in various career and credential pathways.
Relation to Ecosystem
Certifications are an important credential in the learn-and-work ecosystem. They are recognized by employers interested in what knowledge and skills have been demonstrated in the third-party credentialing process. Many employers require specific industry certifications for hiring and for continued employment.
- Some certifications—such as Certified Rigger or Certified Pharmacy Technician (CPhT) —serve as entry-level credentials in a particular industry or occupation.
- The Project Management Professional (PMP)® or Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) are designed as intermediary credentials to help mid-career workers (often already possessing degrees) keep their skills up to date, advance in their chosen fields, or potentially change fields.
- The Medical Laboratory Scientist (MLS ASCP), Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®), and Certified Energy Auditor (CEA) are used by highly skilled professionals to differentiate themselves from their peers, gain greater specialization, broaden the scope of their expertise, and/or assume management or executive positions.
Industry or professional certification
Certifications—processes of certifying established skills and knowledge —have been around for centuries, going back to the days of medieval guilds. Since the technology job boom, there has been a renewed emphasis on providing industry certifications in IT specialties, as tech skills are much in demand in a range of fields.
Credential Engine. (2021). Counting U.S. postsecondary and secondary credentials. Credential Engine.
Uranis, J.; Rodriguez, A.; Cardenas-Navia, I.; Elzey, K.; and Forte, J. (2021, September 22). Certification-Degree pathways: Aligning undergraduate curriculum to industry credentials and professions. Workcred.
Workcred, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, & George Washington Institute of Public Policy. (2020). Understanding certifications. Workcred.