What Is Voluntary Certification?

Why You Need It and Why You Don't

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Voluntary certification is a credential that professional associations grant to individuals who have demonstrated a certain level of competence in an occupation or industry. After applying for this qualification, an individual typically has to prove he or she completed the required coursework and worked in the occupation for a minimum number of years. He or she may also have to pass an exam.

Voluntary Certification, Mandatory Certification, and Licensing

Voluntary certification differs from mandatory certification and licensing. Mandatory certifications and licenses are required by law to practice certain occupations. Requirements vary by state. One chooses to attain voluntary certification. Since it is not required, when it is available for your occupation, you will have to decide if the benefits of earning this credential outweigh its costs.

Reasons to Get Voluntary Certification

If you don't have to get certified, why should you? Putting together your application and preparing for the exam takes a lot of time. Application fees are often high, and you may also have to pay fees to maintain your voluntary certification periodically. With the high costs and considerable effort involved, you may wonder if it is worthwhile. It often is. In many occupations and industries, voluntary certification will improve your chances of getting a job offer. Some employers prefer to hire people who have it, while others will only hire job candidates who are certified. It indicates that a professional association has appraised your qualifications and has given you their stamp of approval.

Voluntary certification can also prove to an employer that you have advanced skills in your occupation. They may use this when determining if you are qualified for a promotion. It can also demonstrate proficiency in an area of specialization in your field and allow you to perform work you wouldn't otherwise be allowed to do.

In cases when a state requires a license to practice an occupation, they may allow you to substitute voluntary certification for a state-administered test. This may make it easier if you want to work in more than one state because it means won't have to take multiple exams.

Why You Shouldn't Get Certified

Certification is meaningless in some fields, contrary to what the organization that is offering it says. If employers don't care about it and won't give you any special consideration because you have it, don't bother. Before you invest the money to get certified, check to make sure employers will find this credential valuable. Will it make you a more competitive candidate? Use your professional network to get the answer to this question and check out job announcements to see if they mention certification. You can also consult the college or training program you attended. Unless it makes a difference in your ability to get hired or advance your career, you probably shouldn't waste your time or money.

You may decide that your resume could benefit from an additional credential even if you can't find much proof that employers will find it valuable. If you decide to go this route, it is always essential to check the legitimacy of the association offering it. A piece of paper from an organization that is unknown or has a bad reputation is just a piece of paper. It will be worthless when it comes time to use it to prove yourself to a potential or current employer.

How to Choose Which Certification to Get 

You may notice more than one voluntary certification is available for your occupation or industry. How do you decide which one to get? Again, you will have to investigate whether employers value one certification more than the other or others. Ask around and look at job announcements to see which one is more prevalent. The Certification Finder from CareerOneStop, a service of the U.S. Department of Labor, can help you discover certifications available in a variety of occupations.