A lot of people want to know what health and safety qualification they should get if they want to advance their career. The typical responses name one of the the following three:

  1. NEBOSH Diploma
  2. NCRQ Diploma
  3. NVQ Level 5 Diploma

As a person who has completed a NEBOSH, the old NVQ 4 (which no longer exists – yes, I'm that old), and is currently undertaking the final unit of NCRQ Diploma, I figure I might have some insight that could help safety professionals, HR departments looking to spend some money on up-skilling their staff, and directors looking for the best value.

I want to make it clear from the outset that I don't work for any training provider and I don't represent any of the brands mentioned above, either. This is purely my humble opinion, having undertaken the certifications that seem come up as the most popular answers.

So, without further ado...

NEBOSH Diploma

I'm terrible at exams. Sure, I left school and college with decent GCSE and A-Level grades (that's what I tell my kids, anyway), but this stuff is the real deal. At level 6, a NEBOSH Diploma is equivalent to a Bachelors Degree. It is meant to be hard. (To find out what each level of a qualification means, see them compared against more traditional qualifications.)

I studied for the Diploma online, with a reputable training company, between 2011 and 2013. The Diploma will be accepted for Grad.IOSH.

I found the NEBOSH Diploma assignment piece to be okay. It was a nice piece to write that demonstrates at least some useful application of my new knowledge. But I did not feel it went far enough. I walked out with a 76% overall grade.

My NEBOSH exams were a total disaster! I think my first exam score (and I was confident I had achieved "distinction") came out at an abysmal 23%. I really did. I revised so long, so hard, and with all kinds of external resources, with the RRC as my go-to revision guide. It did not help me one bit because the revision answers were not structured the same way a NEBOSH examiner likes to see them.

Not to be deterred, I tried again. This time, I contacted my tutor and asked them to set me some further exam style questions. I felt a lot more confident in my re-sit, even though I must stress I gained no new, or increased, knowledge about the subject matter. I only learned how to write in the style expected of a NEBOSH examiner. This time, I failed again. Only by one mark – I scored 39!

The interesting thing about this exercise was that I was already in post and doing the job. Worrisome, right? But, to be fair, I was already in post because I already had a recognized qualification: the NVQ 4.

NVQ Level 5 Diploma

I started the NVQ 4 in 2009 when I was managing a small business and a kindly gentleman asked me, "Do you know about the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act that's coming out? You can go to prison if one of your employees dies because of your failings."

If that doesn't spur you to action, nothing will. So, I made it my business to find a suitable qualification to educate myself. And the NVQ was what I found.

This qualification is hard. At the level 4 (and now level 5), you are expected to contribute to the creation of policies and procedures. You have to consider business continuity plans for all manner of weird and wonderful things outside what most people consider the province of a safety professional (I.T. systems cyberthreats, anyone?)

The most important thing to know about this qualification is that it's not taught. That's right, no teaching. The NVQ is a practical assessment piece. You are supposed to be doing or working toward the performance criteria in this qualification. That can make it a poor choice for someone looking to gain entry to the management field without authority to change policies, procedures, communication protocols, and so on. This qualification is suitable for people already in this position. It is a great way to gain acknowledgement of the value you already add to the business and it may be a helpful piece to pick up some extras too.

A number of my friends who are Operations Directors or hold similar positions are having to do all kinds of extra work in their day jobs to demonstrate competence for their NVQ. This is not really what the qualification is designed for, however, so do be careful if this is you.

One major drawback to the NVQ 5 Diploma is that you cannot use it to pursue higher learning at the Masters level. Another drawback is that not many employers were happy to invite to interview based on a "lowly NVQ," even though you are more practically assessed and your competence has been established (NEBOSH does not offer anything close to this). The NEBOSH Diploma is definitely something to consider if you are looking to take your development to this level. You can apply for Grad.IOSH with NVQ 5.

Which now brings us to the NCRQ.

NCRQ Diploma

Remember when I said that I have no affiliation to any training company? Well, it's true, so I can tell you with integrity that after completing both Unit 1 and Unit 2 of the NCRQ, I think this is one of the best qualifications out there on the market.

The NCRQ provides learners with a textbook filled with case studies and examples, along with further support online to reinforce the information. The qualification is entirely assignment-based (no exams is a big plus for me). One great thing is that the assignments are based on real-life scenarios from all kinds of sectors. That's a great advantage because to get a "distinction" you need to do a lot of wider reading to appreciate some of the finer points of the sector being discussed. All the information is available for free using the greatest tool ever: Google!

NEBOSH has the advantage if you prefer to learn in a classroom environment, since NCRQ and NVQ do not offer this medium.

Despite all its perks, I wasn't a big fan of Unit 2: Civil Liability. Unlike Unit 1, which made absolute sense, I found it quite boring and some parts seemed to be written by a lawyer (learn more about Keeping Workers Safe and Reducing Employer Liability). But I have personally recommended NCRQ to several colleagues and new entrants, and, so far, they have all come back and thanked me, so that's got to be a good sign.

As a learner, I liked that I could study for the NCRQ at my own pace, using online resources and no exams. The really big deal, though, Level 6 gives me a qualification recognized to complete a Masters!

For new entrants to the industry, the Level 6 certificate offers opportunity at Tech.IOSH and the full diploma offers Grad.IOSH status.

Overview

So, with all that in mind, which one is right for you will depend on what you're looking for.

NEBOSH has been around for a while and it still carries weight with hiring managers who don't know there are alternatives.

NVQ is for people who are already in post and doing the job but wish to have it acknowledged formally. But, you cannot progress to a Masters on this qualification alone. You may also meet some resistance when submitting your CV, too.

NCRQ is for practical people who can learn at their own pace and have the discipline to set goals and targets to achieve for themselves. Based on articles I've been reading, it's also gaining some significant traction with employers.

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.