Certifications vs. Certificates: What's the Difference?
Certificates reflect your education and training while certifications reflect your competency - and both can play an important role in your professional development.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, the workplace safety profession's current growth rate is around 7%. With each passing year, thousands of new safety professionals enter the market. So, what is the best way to separate yourself from the crowd? Most individuals would probably say that earning a safety credential is the logical step, which makes sense. Earning a credential is a clear way to signal to hiring managers that you have the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to perform the job - and perform it well.
However, determining your next professional development milestone as a safety professional is not always the easiest, especially when internet searches often provide confusing results. Are you looking for a certification, or perhaps a certificate? Unfortunately, searching for either term will provide you with the results for both.
Now, you may ask yourself, "what exactly is a certification or certificate, and what's the difference?" Although similar in spelling and commonly used interchangeably, the terms have significantly different meanings.
Certificates vs. Certifications at a Glance
|Received as a result of successful completion of a training/education course||Received as a result of passing an examination/assessment process|
|For both new and experienced professionals and is usually open to any education seekers||Typically requires a combination of education and experience|
|Indicates completion of a course||Indicates competency (knowledge, skills, and abilities) measured against a standard through examination|
|Usually listed on a resume in the education section, may provide educational credential/designation||Typically results in post-nominal credential/designation (MSP, CSP, CHMM)|
|Demonstrates knowledge of course content||Usually requires continuing education (CEUs)|
|Can provide a gateway to a degree or prepare for certification||Has no relationship to obtaining higher education|
Certificates are Education-Based
In recent years, certificates have popped up for many safety and environmental topics. Some certificate programs offer job-specific training like Forklift Safety, while others aim to develop specialized skill sets, such as HAZWOPER or Confined Space Rescue.
The main point of certificates is to provide education. Certificates are often provided by organizations and have designated learning objectives, follow a particular curriculum, and lead to an educational credential upon completion of the course. Certificates are great ways to add in-demand skills to your resume and are relevant for the professional development of newcomers and experienced safety professionals alike.
While there are likely hundreds of certificate training programs available today, some of the most common in the safety industry include organizations like the National Association of Safety Professionals, National Safety Council, and American Society of Safety Professionals, to name a few.
For your professional development, it is recommended that you look for certificate training programs that are International Accreditors for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) accredited. The accreditation assures you, as the student, that their training adheres to the ANSI/IACET Standard for Continuing Education and Training. The IACET CEU is often the primary way to maintain certification credentials (more on that later). It also assures employers, credentialing associations, licensing bodies, and others that you have completed a quality training program that meets the national standard for continuing education and training.
Certifications are Competency-Based
Where a certificate provides evidence of passing a training course, a certification is evidence of passing an exam based on industry standards and proves an individual's competency in the subject. Certification is a higher-level achievement intended to recognize specialized knowledge, experience, and education and typically permits practitioners to use a post-nominal designation.
To earn a certification, you must be eligible to take the certification exam; certification eligibility usually requires a set number of years of education, experience, and a qualifying credential. The certification exam is based on a body of knowledge that is specific to the industry as a whole.
For example, to sit for the National Association of Safety Professional's Master Safety Professional (MSP) exam, you must meet one of the four tracks that require:
- Formal education ranging from a high school diploma to a bachelor's degree in occupational health and safety (depending on the track),
- Between three to seven years of related safety experience (again, depending on the track), and
- At least one qualifying credential.
Outside agencies accredit reputable industry certifications; the most recognized being the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB) accreditation. The ANAB accreditation is based on the international ISO/IEC 17024 standard and signals to employers that the credential holder has undergone a fair, valid, and reliable assessment to verify that they have the necessary competencies to practice in the field.
Compared to a certificate, a certification is not a one-off or one-time process. Certifications require recertification at regular intervals, usually three to five years, which ensures that the safety practitioners stay current in their field through ongoing practice, continuing education, or retesting.
Making the Choice
Which is the best for you: studying to pass a certification exam or enrolling in a certificate program? Your answer will most likely depend on where you are currently in your career and your long-term professional goals. Holding a certificate or certification can boost your professional profile and help you land a higher-paying job in the safety field. The key to deciding which level or credential will benefit you most is to assess the competencies required by the hiring managers and match the right credentials to demonstrate that expertise.