Certification Versus Competency: What's the Difference?
Certification matters, but it's only part of the equation.
Bring up the topic of certification and competency to a group of safety professionals and you’re sure to get a firestorm of questions and comments. Does certification equal competence? What’s the difference? Which one matters more?
There’s no simple answer, but one thing is clear: both matter. Separating the two, especially in high-risk industries and workplaces, can lead to a kind of overconfidence known as "certified incompetence." This can result in accidents, financial losses, and a tarnished reputation for the organization.
In this article, we'll go over the difference between certifications and competencies, and show why the two work so well together.
What Is Certification?
Certification is all about credentials. It’s the result of a more formal educational or training process. To become certified, professionals must:
- Complete a course of study or undergo training sessions
- Pass a written examination
- Continue taking professional development courses over the years to renew their certification
There are thousands of credentialed safety professionals in Canada, and these credentials matter. Earning a credential takes work, so it represents a commitment to the profession and a desire to the job right. It shows that the certificate holder has set goals for themselves, followed through, and achieved them. It is, essentially, a third-party stamp of approval that validates the knowledge and professionalism of an individual.
What Is Competency?
Competency, on the other hand, is less a representation of an individual's training and more a reflection of their skill or knowledge. It is, in fact, a shorthand for the precise skills and knowledge required to complete a specified task. Those who have competencies are qualified to perform their work safely.
Unlike certification, there is no single path to competency. Rather, it can be developed through a variety of ways, including:
- On-the-job experience
- Instruction or mentorship
- Formal qualification
Competent individuals require little or no direct supervision. They have the ability to carry out their duties, recognize their limitations, and perform their work safely and effectively.
While it's not necessary to have certifications to achieve competency, the two can be related. Notably, earning a certificate can impart the holder with the skills or knowledge they need to be competent at a given task.
What Is a Certificate of Competency (COC)?
Certificates and competencies are two distinct concepts. There is, however, one term that might cause some confusion: certificate of competency (COC).
These certificates can be required for work that involves heavy machinery or takes place in risky locations. In Quebec, for examples, there are three types of competency certificates for the construction industry:
- Apprentice Competency Certificate (ACC)
- Journeyman Competency Certificate (JCC)
While competency is part of its name, the COC is simply a certificate. Like all certificates, it is awarded for the successful completion of a training program.
Does Certification Matter More Than Competency?
Is certification more important than competency, or vice versa?
While certification is an important method for gaining the key knowledge and skills necessary for a job, competency is required to complete the job properly and safely every time. We all know that practice makes perfect, and certification alone won't give you a whole lot of practice.
It’s not uncommon for workers to complete training courses over the course of a few days and then write an exam to prove their knowledge. The certificate they receive deems them compliant in that area. But what happens when they don’t use this knowledge for an extended period of time? Well all get rusty, and there's a good chance that they will forget key principles, skip important steps, or simply not have the confidence to perform tasks expertly.
In fact, this phenomenon has been quantified. Researchers have studied how much we forget and have come to some interesting conclusions. While it is influenced by various factors like the type of material and individual memory, the Curve of Forgetting suggests that we lose 50 to 80 percent of what we learned the day before if we don't do anything with the information.
Forgetting that much is a pain in the neck when you're trying to remember where you left your keys. When it comes to safety information and safe work processes, it's downright dangerous. And that's why certification can never fully replace competence.
Moving Towards Competence in the Workplace
In their report Beyond the Rules, the Canada West Foundation recommends that employers go above and beyond current safety regulations and adopt a competency-based approach.
Focusing on competency offers a number of benefits for employers and their workers. One Alberta steel fabrication company, in fact, has seen the benefits many times over. Management implemented a competency program in 2013 after four serious safety incidents occurred between 2010 and 2012. Since introducing the program, the company's safety record has improved dramatically. The company has seen an impressive 800 percent reduction in lost time claims. Over the last few years, they also saved over $1.5 million thanks to the new program.
How did they do it? By taking the following steps:
- Identifying competencies relevant for each task in a given job
- Establishing standards and criteria to assess worker competency through evaluation
- Training employees who exhibit competency gaps with on-the-job training
- Focusing company progress on commitment, consistent leadership, co-ordination, champions, coaching, communication, and continuous learning
(Learn more in Enhancing Safety Culture through Mentorship Programs)
And how can you do it, too?
Experts recommend that Canadian employers begin by building and implementing a system of competency frameworks for every job, including standards for competence and criteria to assess performance in key tasks and subtasks. Employers should assess worker competence by observing their work, then act quickly to fill any training gaps. It’s also critical to nurture a work culture where individuals are confident requesting training when they feel it would improve their safety and performance.
(Learn more about Implementing a Safety Culture)
Adopting a Competency Approach
Certification and competence complement each other. It’s important for employees to receive some in-depth training and certification, but putting the training into practice is what really makes that knowledge stick and improves workplace safety records.
Employers can begin by assigning work based on what employees can actually do, rather than what their certificates say they can do. In addition to creating a safer workplace, the competency approach can provide much-needed support to employees, boosting morale and the company’s bottom line.