What Is Certification?

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A certification is a credential that tells an employer that you have a specific skill. Typically, you earn a certification by taking an exam administered by a professional organization. Upon successfully completing the exam, you are certified in that skill.

Depending on your scope of work, certification may be necessary to land a position in your field. Learn about how certification works; its benefits, costs, and requirements; and how to use it to boost your career.

Definition and Examples of Certification

A certification demonstrates that you have a specific skill or level of knowledge, ultimately showing an employer that you know what you need to do to successfully peform your job. Generally, certifications are conferred by professional groups, not government agencies. To become certified in a skill, you often are required to take and pass an exam. 

Jobs in many fields require certifications, including positions in health care, information technology, human resources, sales, and skilled trades. In some cases, certifications cross sectors. For instance, project managers with a project management professional (PMP) certification may be able to work in business and professional services, manufacturing, oil and gas, or a number of other industries.

Sometimes employers require certifications, and in other cases, employees choose to get them on their own to be more competitive in the job market.

How Does Certification Work?

A certification is not the same thing as licensure, although the two are often used interchangeably. Certification attests to the holder’s knowledge, while licensure confers the legal right to practice a profession.

Depending on the career, some professionals hold both a certification and licensure. For example, a registered nurse must be licensed by the state in which they work. They may also become certified in a specific area, such as pediatrics. Licensure is legally required to work as a registered nurse, while certification is typically not required. Employers still may prefer or even insist on it, however.

Certification is different from the certificate you receive at the end of some educational programs. A certificate shows that you have completed course requirements, while a certification is a credential that is typically earned after taking an exam. It demonstrates that you have the skills necessary to perform a specific job.

Do I Need a Certification?

In some cases, you might need a certification to get hired. A certification may also help you get promoted or earn more money than your co-workers who do not have the specific credential at hand.

Some industries are more likely to require certifications than others. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the following occupations have the highest percentages of workers who held certifications but no licenses:

  • Computer and mathematical (6.6%)
  • Community and social services (4.6%)
  • Installation, maintenance, and repair (4.1%)
  • Business and financial operations (3.3%)
  • Legal (3.3%)
  • Health care practitioners and technical (3.1%)

Examples of Jobs That Might Require Certification

Many professionals might benefit from certification, especially in fields that are expected to grow in popularity and need. Below are a few examples of occupations in which certification is common.

Actuary: Depending on their specialization, actuaries are certified by one of two professional societies, the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) and the Society of Actuaries (SOA). To earn the associate level of certification, actuaries must pass seven exams, requiring many months of studying. Many pass at least one exam while completing their bachelor’s degree. If received, the rewards of a certification in this field are significant: According to the BLS, actuaries earn a median annual salary of $111,030. Jobs in this field are expected to increase 18% over the next 10 years.

Information security analyst: In addition to having at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field, these professionals often have one of several information security certifications. For example, the Certified Information Systems Security Professional is a general information security certification. Per the BLS, information security analysts earn a median annual salary of $103,590. Jobs in this area are expected to increase 31% over the coming decade.

Wind turbine technician: This occupation is an example of a job where a certification can replace extensive formal education. Wind techs typically earn a certificate or associate degree in wind energy technology. Some employers, however, may prefer candidates with additional certification in workplace electrical safety, tower climbing, and other subjects. Wind turbine technicians earn a median annual salary of $56,230, according to the BLS, which predicts that jobs in this field will increase 61% in the next 10 years—much faster than average.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop offers a certification finder tool. Plug in your job title or certification name to find more information on the subject. You can also narrow it down by industry or occupation in the navigation.

How Much Does a Certification Cost?

The cost of certification varies widely depending on the credential and your location. For example, the Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support certification for health care providers typically costs a few hundred dollars. At the other end of the spectrum are high-level IT certifications, some of which can cost thousands of dollars.

In some cases, employers will cover certifications and other continuing educational expenses related to your job. Before paying out of pocket for a certification, check with your human resources department or manager about whether they will cover it.

Key Takeaways

  • Certification demonstrates professional knowledge, a specific skill set, or an ability to do a particular job.
  • Generally, certifications are given by professional groups that administer an exam upholding their standards.
  • A certification is not the same thing as licensure, although some professionals hold both licenses and certifications.