, trade certification, or professional designation, often called simply certification or qualification, is a designation earned by a person to assure qualification to perform a job or task. Not all certifications that use post-nominal letters are an acknowledgement of educational achievement, or an agency appointed to safeguard the public interest.
A certification is a third-party attestation of an individual's level of knowledge or proficiency in a certain industry or profession. They are granted by authorities in the field, such as professional societies and universities, or by private certificate-granting agencies. Most certifications are time-limited; some expire after a period of time (e.g., the lifetime of a product that required certification for use), while others can be renewed indefinitely as long as certain requirements are met. Renewal usually requires ongoing education to remain up-to-date on advancements in the field, evidenced by earning the specified number of continuing education credits (CECs), or continuing education units (CEUs), from approved professional development courses.
Many certification programs are affiliated with professional associations, trade organizations, or private vendors interested in raising industry standards. Certificate programs are often created or endorsed by professional associations, but are typically completely independent from membership organizations. Certifications are very common in fields such as aviation, construction, technology, environment, and other industrial sectors, as well as healthcare, business, real estate, and finance.
According to The Guide to National Professional Certification Programs (1997) by Phillip Barnhart, "certifications are portable, since they do not depend on one company's definition of a certain job" and they provide potential employers with "an impartial, third-party endorsement of an individual's professional knowledge and experience".
Certification is different from professional licensure. In the United States, licenses are typically issued by state agencies, whereas certifications are usually awarded by professional societies or educational institutes. Obtaining a certificate is voluntary in some fields, but in others, certification from a government-accredited agency may be legally required to perform certain jobs or tasks. In other countries, licenses are typically granted by professional societies or universities and require a certificate after about three to five years and so on thereafter. The assessment process for certification may be more comprehensive than that of licensure, though sometimes the assessment process is very similar or even the same, despite differing in terms of legal status.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) defines the standard for being a certifying agency as meeting the following two requirements:
- Delivering an assessment based on industry knowledge that is independent from training courses or course providers
- Granting a time-limited credential to anyone who meets the assessment standards
The Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE) is a U.S.-based organization that sets standards for the accreditation of personnel certification and certificate programs based on the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, a joint publication of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the American Psychological Association (APA), and the National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME). Many members of the Association of Test Publishers (ATP) are also certification organizations.
There are three general types of certification. Listed in order of development level and portability, they are: corporate (internal), product-specific, and profession-wide.
Corporate, or "internal" certifications, are made by a corporation or low-stakes organization for internal purposes. For example, a corporation might require a one-day training course for all sales personnel, after which they receive a certificate. While this certificate has limited portability â to other corporations, for example â it is the most simple to develop.
Product-specific certifications are more involved, and are intended to be referenced to a product across all applications. This approach is very prevalent in the information technology(IT) industry, where personnel are certified on a version of software or hardware. This type of certification is portable across locations (for example, different corporations that use that software), but not across other products. Another example could be the certifications issued for shipping personnel, which are under international standards even for the recognition of the certification body, under the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
The most general type of certification is profession-wide. Certification in the medical profession is often offered by particular specialties. In order to apply professional standards, increase the level of practice, and protect the public, a professional organization might establish a certification. This is intended to be portable to all places a certified professional might work. Of course, this generalization increases the cost of such a program; the process to establish a legally defensible assessment of an entire profession is very extensive. An example of this is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), which would not be certified for just one corporation or one piece of accountancy software but for general work in the profession.