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Professional certification is the process by which a person proves that he or she has the knowledge, experience and skills to perform a specific job and the tasks in which they have been trained. The proof comes in the form of a certificate which is earned by passing one or more exams that were developed by an organization or association that monitors and upholds the prescribed standards for the particular industry involved.

Check out the Certification Finder which identifies the professional association and context for each occupation.

It is important to note that certifications are usually earned from a professional society or educational provider, not the government. If a demonstration of ability or knowledge is required by law before being allowed to perform a task or job in your state, this is referred to as licensure. In the United States, professional licenses are usually issued by state agencies. For some organizations, the certification and assessment process is very similar or even the same as licensure and may differ only in terms of legal status. Meanwhile within other organizations, the process can be quite different and more comprehensive than that of licensure. Certification and licensure differ only in terms of legal status.

There are three general types of certification.
  • Corporate: Internal certifications made by a corporation to certify quality of training delivery and completion for quality 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 (for example, to other corporations), it is the most simple to develop.
  • Product-specific: These certifications are more involved with products, and are intended to be referenced external to the company in the marketplace. 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. So, if you get CISCO certification in networking, it does not mean you can say you are certified in Microsoft or Oracle.
  • Profession-Wide: This is the most general type of certification. Certification in the medical profession is often offered by particular specialties in Nursing, Diagnostics and Testing. In order to apply professional standards, increase the level of practice and possibly protect the public (though this is also the domain of licensure), 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.
What’s in it for You?
Professional certification shows consumers and potential employers that you are committed to your profession and are well-trained. It gives them confidence in your abilities and knowledge. Certification makes you more valuable to employers, so you can expect to earn more than someone without certification. Certification also offers advancement opportunities and management opportunities. You will have a competitive advantage over candidates without certificates, earn higher wages and receive tuition reimbursement for continuing education.

Certification Requirements
Many of the professions that require or offer certification are governed by the state in which the certificate holder practices. Your professional association will help you understand these requirements, but you can also find them at each state’s government website.

Choosing the Best School
There are almost as many requirements for earning a certificate as there are fields requiring them, so how you go about becoming certified has everything to do with what kind of certificate you want and what you want to do with it. Know the differences between all the different types of schools so you can choose the right school for you.Begin your search by visiting the websites of the National Associations that govern your field of interest listed in the Certification Finder. Visit the organizations that govern or accredit the schools in the field you have chosen. The format of the educational program and the study guides are an important factor to consider. If you think an online program would work best for you because of the convenience it provides, read up on online certificates before you choose a school and program. Some types of courses need practicums and in-person settings.

Financial Aid
Paying for education is a concern for most students. Loans, grants and scholarships are available depending upon the recognition of accreditation by the US Department of Education or the US Department of Labor. Do your homework before going to school. Apply for the FAFSA which will establish your unmet need.

Continuing Education
Most professional certifications require that certificate holders complete a certain number of hours of continuing education annually or biannually in order to remain current. The number of hours varies by state and field. Notices are generally sent out by the governing state and/or association, as is literature advertising continuing education opportunities, conferences and conventions.

What Are Continuing Education Units (CEU)?
Make the Most of Continuing Education Conferences. Many professional associations gather their members yearly in the form of conferences, conventions and/or trade shows to provide continuing education seminars, to discuss the profession and new best practices and to showcase the latest products and services. Networking at these gatherings can be extremely valuable to professionals.

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