Credentials and Your Career

Closeup of a certification certificate.Having trouble landing a new job? Or, feel like your career has stagnated a bit? How can this be happening? You’re experienced, good at what you do, and have the necessary degree. You’re a dependable employee. Maybe you’ve applied for similar positions with other firms but never heard anything back. What’s going on? Of course, many factors could be responsible for this situation. But, first, let me ask this: do you have any credentials for your field?

 The term “credentials” is often widely used to refer to or include college degrees and other educational qualifications. However, as I will explain shortly, I prefer to use the word a bit differently. Every properly written job description clearly states the necessary educational requirements or their equivalent. Either an applicant meets those requirements or they will not be considered for the job. Period.

 As a result, whether you’re applying for an internal promotion or a position somewhere else, every applicant meets at least those same basic educational requirements. So, unless a person happens to hold a more advanced degree or has an unusually high GPA, it’s pretty much a level playing field. As far as education is concerned, odds are no one looks any better than anyone else. Although education is technically a credential, by itself it may not be anything special or particularly useful in differentiating job applicants. It’s just a necessary requirement. Simply another box to be checked off.

Credentials Viewed a Bit Differently

 As I use the term, “credentials” refer to qualifications above and beyond the mere academic prerequisites for a job. Specifically, a credential may be thought of as an independent verification of your qualifications for or proficiency in a particular career field.  Think licenses, certifications, registries, etc.

Note that licenses and certifications are not the same things. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

 “…certifications and licenses are credentials that demonstrate a level of skill or knowledge needed to perform a specific type of job. Both terms refer to time-limited credentials that need to be renewed periodically. The fundamental difference between the two is the issuer of the credential: certifications are issued by nongovernmental certification bodies, whereas licenses are awarded by a federal, state, or local government agency. Thus, licenses convey a legal authority to work in an occupation, while a certification on its own does not.”


Why do licenses exist? Licensure requirements are put in place by governmental entities to protect the safety of its citizens and help guard the public against incompetent individuals. For example, a barber or cosmetologist who does not properly sanitize their equipment could spread disease among customers. An electrical contractor who does not know and follow wiring codes might perform work resulting in fires or deaths. Imagine someone representing themselves as a medical doctor or dentist without the proper education and training. You get the idea.

 Requiring workers in certain fields to have government-issued licenses helps ensure that only qualified and knowledgeable persons who have met specific standards are permitted to offer those services to the public.

To obtain a license, one must typically have received certain education and/or on-the-job training and experience. The license applicant’s knowledge is then independently tested, either directly by the governmental entity or through a proxy. Upon successful completion of all requirements, a license is issued which grants the person permission to perform work in that field. Should he or she fail at some point to observe all applicable regulations and good practices, the license may be suspended or revoked. If that happens, the individual would be legally prohibited from continuing to perform that type of work.

 The BLS indicates that as of 2015, about 22 percent of employed people had some type of license. Occupations with the highest percentages of licensed workers include those in healthcare, legal and protective service, community and social services, and personal care and service.

Get a License?

So, does possessing some type of license make you stand out? As with education, maybe not. If a certain job absolutely requires a license, then having this credential probably does nothing as far as setting you apart. However, if a license in your field is desirable but not mandatory, having one may enhance your standing as an applicant.

In some jobs, obtaining a license may be necessary to advance from a lower-level position (e.g., such as an assistant, etc.) to a higher one. Depending on your field, working toward obtaining a license might very well be the next logical step in advancing your career.

Is a license required to work in or advance in your career of interest? If you are already employed in that field in some way, you likely already know the requirements. However, if you are not sure, or are thinking about moving elsewhere to obtain a job, you will definitely need to check.

Licensing Requirements Vary by Field and Location

When researching the need for a license, be sure to check at the federal, state, and local levels. Requirements can and do vary by both location and type of work. For example, in some professions, a license may be required by the federal government to work anywhere in the country. In other fields, a license may be required only in certain states or by local authorities.

If you are moving and the new location requires a license, be sure to find out if any “reciprocal or reciprocity agreements” exist. With such agreements, one state may recognize the license awarded to you by another state. In other cases, they may at least consider it when you apply for a license in the new location, making the process easier or faster. If no such agreement exists for your field in the new location, you may have to start over and apply from scratch just like any other new licensee.

Certifications, etc.

Now enter the realm where credentials which may or may not be optional. Does your career field have a recognized certification or other such independently verified acknowledgment that certain qualifications have been met? If so, do you possess that credential?

Certifications and similar credentials (such as “registered,” etc.) are designations awarded by non-governmental organizations to individuals who meet their specific criteria. Typically, such certifying entities are prominent and nationally-recognized professional organizations or trade associations within a particular field. These groups offer certification as a means of helping to distinguish persons working in their field as qualified and competent.

In turn, some employers may use certification as a means to readily identify the best-qualified candidates. Employers may even decide to only hire certified individuals or require certification for promotion to higher-level positions.

Is Certification Required for a License?

It depends. Note that these non-governmental certifying bodies have no legal authority on their own to issue a license. However, in some fields, governmental agencies may require certification as a condition to obtain a license. Why? Not every agency may have the money, time, staff, or even expertise to establish their own licensing and testing programs. If so, they might deem a particular certification program a viable alternative to operating their own government-run licensing program. If so, the regulatory authority may elect to work with the certifying body and officially recognize their credential as a prerequisite for licensure. Thus, although many certifications are both desirable and voluntary, some may, in effect, be mandatory if required to obtain a license.

If certification is not an absolute prerequisite to employment or licensure in your field, is it still potentially valuable? My opinion is yes. Applicants who possess a voluntary or optional certification may favorably distinguish themselves from other candidates. Employers know that certification usually involves training, studying, and subjecting one’s self to rigorous testing. Thus, an employer may view voluntary certification not just as a mark of competency, but as a demonstration of self-initiative and dedication to the field.

Your Coworkers May Not be Overly Supportive

Especially if certification in your field is completely voluntary and not required for a higher-level position or more pay, don’t be surprised if you get some ribbing from coworkers. Unfortunately, some people, for whatever reason, cannot stand to see others take the initiative to improve themselves or attempt to advance their careers.

Early in my own career, I decided to pursue a nationally-recognized but voluntary certification in my field. Because the credential was not required for my job, receiving it did not mean any increase in wages. I had to pay for the study materials and testing fee out of my own pocket. As the certification test took four to six hours to complete and was held on the other side of the state, I had to drive there and stay overnight in a hotel. Again, all at my own expense.

At this point, none of my coworkers was certified or even considering it. I recall some chiding me as to why I would bother to “waste my time and money” to pursue a “useless” certification? What was I trying to prove? My answer was simple. Certification is just a personal goal I set for myself, and if the day ever came when it was needed or required, I would already have it.

Yes, I received my certification. As fate would have it several years later, many employers around the country, including my own, viewed this certification as desirable for new applicants and even required it for some higher-level, higher-paying positions.

Don’t ever let others deter you from taking steps now to enhance your desirability as a job candidate or advance your career. You may not need a particular credential today, but if someday you do, you’ll be ready when the opportunity arises.

A Radical Viewpoint on This Topic

For balance, here’s a somewhat extreme viewpoint you may hear. Some argue that many licensure or certification requirements are unnecessary burdens placed on both workers and employers alike. They contend that such mandates are merely self-serving efforts by those already working in the field to drive up wages and limit access to certain careers by newcomers, something especially detrimental to those with limited financial means.

I will not examine the validity of those views here. For our purposes, the entire debate has no relevance. Why? Because unless the existing licensure and certification situation changes, things “are what they are” for now. Who knows? Such requirements may never change, especially since in some cases government action would be required. Thus, if a certain credential is applicable in your field as of today, then you need to act accordingly now.

Final Thoughts

Does your career field have such credentials? Would having one or more make you a more desirable job applicant to prospective employers? Would a particular credential enable you to be promoted or advance in your career? If so, set credential goals for yourself and begin pursuing them today! Good luck!

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave a comment and share your experience or thoughts!

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