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The Nature of Professional Certification

by Raymond A. Talke, Jr.
Minds in Action, Inc.

In recent years, professional certification programs have been proliferating at an ever-increasing rate.  Professional certification programs exist for obvious professions, like accountants, counselors, engineers, nurses, and therapists.  Certifications even exist for less obvious professions, such as auto glass technicians, bathroom designers, ergonomists, park operators, and turfgrass professionals.[i]  In the information technology industry alone, over 100 companies and organizations offer over 300 professional certification credentials.  What is driving the proliferation of professional certification programs?  Why are companies and organizations sponsoring professional certification programs?  And what is the real purpose of a professional certification credential?

The Drivers of Certification

Due to changes in the economy and advances in technology, professions have grown more complex and specialized.  Jobs that were once thought of as mundane have advanced to the point that specialized skills are necessary to successfully practice the profession.  It is not uncommon to find that gardeners often require skills in biology, genetics, and the environmental sciences.  Auto mechanics, besides possessing traditional mechanical skills, must now master computer technology as part of their work.  And virtually every individual who interacts with the public or the environment has to contend with a myriad of governmental regulations as part of their professional responsibilities.

Because the skills required to perform even typical jobs have grown more complex, it has become difficult to evaluate an individual’s ability to successfully perform the tasks required of a given profession.  Corporate hiring decisions are based upon management’s perception of an individual’s ability to master the tasks of a specific job.  At one time, the hiring manager could easily select appropriate candidates since he or she previously held a similar job.  Today, however, the span of management control in many organizations has increased, and a manager is likely to have a very limited knowledge of the real requirements of the profession.  Even if the manager previously performed a similar job, the pace of technology often renders his or her previous experience superfluous.  Skills that the manager may have used on the job just a few years ago (and in some industries, a few months ago) may have already become obsolete, and have been replaced by a newer and more advanced set of skills.  In some cases, the job to be filled may be new to the organization, and there is no organizational experience available to evaluate a candidate’s true qualifications.  And as economic forces require companies to react faster and faster, the luxury of a “break-in” period for a new employee has become a thing of the past; employees are expected to be productive contributors on their first day on the job.  These conditions require an accurate and unbiased method of evaluating an individual’s skills.  Professional certification programs can fill this need.

The general public also needs a method to evaluate the qualifications of professionals.  Few people go through life without the need of professional assistance – whether it is an auto mechanic, a general contractor, a health care worker, or a plumber.  Yet, it is often difficult to determine if a prospective services provider is a competent practitioner or a charlatan.  By selecting a professional who is certified in his or her profession, an individual can be assured that the professional is indeed a competent practitioner.

Although the needs of prospective employers and the general public have contributed to the growth of professional certification programs, professionals themselves have also driven the increase in the number of programs.  By attaining professional certification, an individual in a given profession distinguishes himself from others in the same profession.  The certified individual has validated that his skills meet or exceed the accepted skill requirements of the profession.  This recognition provides the certified individual with an advantage over uncertified individuals in the profession in several areas.  Certified individuals often find it easier to secure employment, earn higher salaries, and advance in their professions than uncertified individuals.[ii]

Some professions have a less than stellar reputation.  Individuals have entered these professions and sullied the reputation by engaging in unethical, and sometimes illegal, practices.  Auto repair, auto sales, contracting, and massage are just some examples of professions that have suffered poor public perception due to the unscrupulous activities of individuals who claim to be members of these professions.  Legitimate practitioners in these professions have difficulty distinguishing themselves from the unscrupulous.  By earning professional certification, legitimate practitioners can distinguish themselves from the less than legitimate pretenders in the profession.  Professional certification allows legitimate professionals to present themselves to the public as ethical and qualified providers of their respective services.

What is a Professional Certification Program?

As the number of professional certification programs increase, so do the number of programs the improperly use the term “certified”.  Some program sponsors incorrectly assume that any assessment confers certified status upon an individual who passes a test.  Others fail to establish consistent standards that constitute certification.  Many so-called certification programs do not define the tasks a certified individual will be able to perform.  Some programs confer the certified label as a marketing device to compel individuals to attend a class or seminar.  Whether intentional or unintentional, these programs sully the reputation of all professional certification programs.  In order to gain acceptance among the public, a certification credential must be meaningful.  This means that the public must view the certification credential as something that requires effort to obtain and validates a specific and consistent level of expertise.  Therefore, it is critical that any potential professional certification program sponsor recognizes the true definition and purpose of certification, and develops their program to the highest standards and levels of integrity.

Professional certification programs are designed to validate that individuals are able to perform a specific set of tasks at or above an established performance level.  Generally, this performance level is established so that the certified individual can be expected to perform these tasks in a manner that will not harm themselves, their employers, or the consumers of their services and that the successful performance of these tasks will add value to the organization or individual for whom the services are performed.  In other words, professional certification programs validate that an individual can perform a given set of tasks within a profession or job role safely and effectively.  All true professional certification programs are designed to evaluate an individual’s ability to competently perform his or her job.

Professional certification can be defined as a credential that validates that an individual can competently perform a set of defined tasks within a given job role to a stated level of performance.  All valid professional certification programs share the following characteristics:

  1. The standards for certification are based upon the performance of a specified set of tasks, and those tasks are homogenous in nature.  In other words, the tasks that are assessed should be tasks that are typically performed by a single individual in a given profession or job role.  A certification program that attempts to validate some tasks typically performed by a salesperson along with some tasks typically performed by a technician would not be a valid program since individuals rarely perform these two distinct jobs simultaneously.

  2. The assessment instrument validates that the certification candidate can master a specific set of tasks by gauging the candidate’s knowledge and skills.  The knowledge and skills to be assessed are defined in a knowledge and skills domain that is made public.

  3. The knowledge and skills domain must be relevant to the tasks typically performed within the context of the defined profession or job role and must be defined at a level consistent with the level of competence expected of a certified individual.  The required knowledge and skills domain must be published and made available to the public.  Since the characteristics of professions change over time, the knowledge and skills domain must be periodically reviewed to ensure that it is still valid and relevant to the profession.  For example, it would be foolish and dangerous to evaluate the current ability of Physicians based upon criteria established 20 years ago. 

  4. The standards required to earn the certification credential must be consistent for all certification candidates.  Geographic variances in requirements, for example, will invalidate a certification program.

  5. The certification program must be non-discriminatory.  Gender, national origin, culture, race, physical ability or disability, religion, etc. must not place a candidate at an advantage or disadvantage in earning the credential unless one or more of these factors is an absolute requirement to perform the job.  For example, since international airline communications are conducted in English, it would be acceptable to make fluency in the English language a requirement for a pilot’s certification.  However, requiring a certified pilot to be a native English speaker would not be acceptable.  When certification requirements can be viewed as exclusionary, it is imperative that the certification sponsor ensures that the exclusionary factors are truly requirements for successful performance on the job.

  6. The certification program establishes an evaluation strategy that validates the mastery of the knowledge and skills domain by the certification candidate.  The methods of assessment may vary – testing, evaluation of a work portfolio, and observation of performance may all be valid assessment methods – but the certification program sponsor must ensure that the candidate seeking certification is the individual whose abilities are being assessed.  If, for example, testing is being used to evaluate the performance of the individual, the certification sponsor must validate the identity of the individual taking the test and ensure that the testing environment is consistent for all certification candidates.  This usually requires that the test be offered in a proctored environment.  Self-reporting or the assessment of unverified work products are not valid ways to meet the assessment requirement.

  7. The assessment methods used must be consistent for all certification candidates.  For example, if testing is used to validate a candidate’s mastery of the knowledge and skills domain in one geography, observation of performance may not be used in another geography.  All candidates must be measured by the same set of standards in the same way.

  8. The sponsor of the certification credential has a vested interest in the job or profession being certified.  For example, a non-profit professional association may have an interest in promoting professionalism among its members.  The professional association may choose to sponsor certification programs for the professions to which its members belong.  For-profit corporations may have a vested interest in ensuring that their business partners properly represent their products and services.  Creating a professional certification credential for the professions that market or support their products and services will help ensure that these products and services are professionally offered to the public.  Organizations that sponsor professional certification programs without having a stake in the professions being certified should be viewed with suspicion.  They are often “certification mills” offering worthless credentials.

  9. Certified individuals must be required to renew their credential periodically.  Since the characteristics of professions change over time, a valid professional certification program must ensure that all certified individuals meet the current standards of the profession.  This usually requires a periodic reevaluation of an individual’s knowledge and skills.

Certification Program Pretenders

As the popularity of professional certification programs increase, a number of so-called certification programs emerge that are not true professional certification programs.  Sometimes this is due to the program being developed by inexperienced individuals.  Other times, less than ethical individuals or organizations attempt to cash in on the popularity of certification by offering sham certification credentials.  Some programs are similar to certification and the public easily confuses them with certification programs.  Certificate programs, licenses, and educational credentials are valid programs, but not true certification programs. 

The proliferation of poorly designed and sham certification programs, as well as the public’s confusion about similar sounding programs, diminish the value of legitimate professional certification programs.  It is important that professional certification sponsors, certification candidates, and the public recognize the difference between legitimate professional certification programs and “pretenders” to certification.

The following are some examples of sham certification programs or programs that are often confused with certification:

Academic degrees – An academic degree is a credential awarded to an individual who has successfully completed a course of instruction from an educational institution.  An academic degree differs from certification in that the academic degree does not ensure that an individual is prepared to master a given job or profession.  For example, an individual who earns a Law degree is not immediately permitted to practice law in most jurisdictions.  He or she must first pass the Bar exam (a form of certification).

Accreditation – Accreditation is a credential conferred upon an entity (such as a program or institution) that validates that the entity meets or exceeds a set of defined criteria.  Accreditation is similar to certification in that both credentials validate that the owner of the credential has been validated to meet or exceed a certain set of standards.  Certification, however, is a credential conferred upon individuals, while accreditation is a credential conferred upon non-individual entities, such as businesses, programs and institutions.

Assessment tests – Assessment tests measure an individual’s mastery of a specific knowledge and skills domain. Although professional certification programs often use assessment tests as part of the requirements of certification, an assessment test in and of itself is not certification.  Assessment tests can be used to measure an individual’s retention of learned material, readiness to pursue a course of instruction, personal proclivities, and other factors that have nothing to do with certification.

Certification mills – Profit making entities have been known to establish certification programs of dubious value.  The sponsors of these dubious certification programs are disparagingly known as “certification mills.”  Rather than having a vested interest in the professions that form the basis of the certification program, certification mills establish certification programs solely for their profit-making ability.  Often, these certification programs are designed to drive additional business to the sponsor’s educational offerings.  Certification mill programs are rarely subjected to the psychometric and professional rigor that is found among legitimate certification programs.  Certification credentials from certification mills are generally considered worthless, and only serve to reduce the public’s faith in all certification credentials.

Certificate programs – Certificates are credentials awarded to individuals who have completed courses of instruction in a topic area.  Although certificates validate that the individual has successfully completed a course of instruction, no assurance is made that the individual is actually able to apply the concepts in the performance of a task.  Since the ability to apply the learned knowledge is not validated and because the certificate need not be tied to a specific job or profession, certificate programs are not equivalent to certification.

Licenses – Licenses are credentials offered by governmental entities granting individuals permission to engage in certain occupations.  In some instances, licenses verify that the individual has met certain minimum standards of knowledge or performance.  However, in other instances, the license does not imply that any standards of professional competence were proven.

Many licenses do require that an individual earn a certification credential before receiving a license.  However, this is not the case in all instances.  Many licenses exist solely for the purpose of raising revenue for a governmental entity.  A license only signifies that a governmental body has given permission to an individual to practice a specific profession.  A license provides no inherent assurance that the individual is actually qualified to practice a profession.

Product based certification – Some organizations attempt to certify product-based knowledge without any consideration for the job or profession in which the product knowledge is applied.  Rather than being a true professional certification program, product-based certifications merely validate that an individual has memorized an arbitrary set of details about a given product or product set.  Product-based certification credentials are not legitimate certification credentials and are often considered inferior to true professional certifications.

In some cases, product-based certifications can be considered legitimate certification credentials.  If both knowledge and skill in using or supporting a product is validated, and the knowledge and skills are tied to a specific profession or job role, the product-based certification can be considered a legitimate indicator of professional competence within the confines of the use or support of the product.

Qualification programs – Qualification programs are designed to ensure that an individual or entity has met a given set of conditions before being permitted to enter or engage in a specific activity.  For example, an educational institution may require that an individual pass a test before being permitted to enroll.  A corporation may stipulate that another company meets certain revenue targets and education requirements before being permitted to represent its products or services as a business partner.  By qualifying an individual or organization, the sponsor of the qualification program attempts to ensure that the individual or entity is ready to enter into an activity.

Qualification differs from certification in that qualification attempts to assess readiness, while professional certification attempts to validate performance.  If an individual is ready to enter into an activity, such as a job (qualification), they may not yet have mastered the performance of the job (certification).

Most of these examples, with the exception of certification mills and some “product” certifications, are valid programs.  They serve a valuable purpose, if they are used for the purpose for which they are intended.  However, when they are mistaken for, or (even worse) represented as, certification programs, they diminish the public’s respect for all professional certification programs.  Care must be taken to properly position professional certification programs, and to avoid providing the impression that other programs are similar or equivalent to professional certification.


Professional certification is a growing field.  As professions grow more complex and the requirements of professional competence rapidly change, a need has emerged to validate an individual’s ability to competently perform specific jobs.  When establishing a certification program, or seeking a certification credential, care must be taken to ensure that the certification requirements are properly defined and that the credential has value.  Professional certification program sponsors and certification candidates must be vigilant to ensure that their credentials are true certification credentials and not pretenders to certification.  This helps ensure that the public values their certification credentials and that certification will continue to serve a valuable purpose in the professional marketplace.


[i] Phillip A. Barnhart, The Guide to National Professional Certification Programs, (Amherst:  HRD Press, 1997).

 [ii] Christopher Boone and Kelly Matthews, Evaluating the Benefits of Check Point Certification.  (Framingham, MA: IDC, 2001), pp. 2, 5-6;  “Benefits and Productivity Gains Realized Through IT Certification”.  IDC.  Accessed March 14, 2002, http://www.lotus.com/services/education.nsf/17f3af26d376c5b2852565590053078b/667ad2aeeea340fa852565610060e074?OpenDocument; Gary Gablhouse, “Certification: Something of Value”, Certification Magazine, December 2001, pp. 32-41; Claude Lijoi, ed., 2000 Training and Certification Study.  (Baltimore:  Prometric, 2000), p. 7.



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Last modified: 05/06/07