Certifications as a Vehicle for Increasing Labor-Market Mobility

The current and potential roles for industry and professional certifications as a vehicle for increasing labor-market mobility was the focus of this Lumina Foundation-funded study. As many workers seek to acquire new skills and credentials that they hope will support their careers or a change in careers, they face a confusing landscape of credentials––degrees, certificates, certifications, licenses, and badges. Among these, the least understood may be certifications, a type of credential that reliably indicates an individual has acquired the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to perform a specific occupation or job.

Highlighting the dimensions, patterns, and trends among certifications, as well as how they currently or could interrelate with other types of credentials, the project team provided employers, workers, students, policymakers, and education and workforce development practitioners a clear picture about the use and value of certifications. The project also uncovered where certifications present the risk of being dead-end credentials that can limit access to opportunity, and how to instead ensure certifications serve as part of lifelong pathways for advancement.

To inform this project, the project team conducted research and interviewed relevant staff for 16 certifications within cybersecurity, health care, information technology, and manufacturing chosen for the project. Selection criteria for the certifications studied included:

  • a mix of more established certifications as well as certifications that have been developed recently to address emerging skills and occupations;
  • certifications with a range of educational and experience prerequisites—from entry-level to post-baccalaureate specialization with particular attention to certifications that provide accessibility to workers without a prior college degree;
  • a mix of accredited and non-accredited certification bodies;
  • an opportunity to study the relationship between industry certifications and academic credentials; and
  • an opportunity to map career pathways.

The following certifications were selected for use in this project. An overview of each certification was developed that provides information about eligibility, costs, prerequisites, and other related information.

  • American Academy of Healthcare Providers in the Addictive Disorders Certified Addiction Specialist
  • American Healthcare Information Management Association Registered Health Information Technician
  • American Nursing Credentialing Center Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing - Board Certified
  • American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
  • American Society for Clinical Pathology Board of Certification Medical Laboratory Technician
  • Association for Supply Chain Management Certified Supply Chain Professional
  • Behavior Analyst Certification Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst
  • Board for Global EHS Credentialing Certified Industrial Hygienist
  • CertNexus Certified Ethical Emerging Technologist
  • CompTIA A+ Core Series
  • EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker
  • (ISC)2 Certified Information Systems Security Professional
  • Manufacturing Skills Standards Council Certified Production Technician 4.0
  • Microsoft Certified Azure Fundamentals
  • Project Management Institute Certified Associate in Project Management
  • Smart Automation Certification Alliance Certified Industry 4.0 Associate - Basic Operations

Along with the individual overviews for each certification, the project culminated in five reports:

Understanding Certifications

This report is intended as a primer to help policymakers and practitioners navigate the complex and little understood “wild west” of certifications. Awarded by industry groups, professional associations, and companies, certifications have the potential to be useful tools in addressing re-employment, re-deployment, and re-education challenges that workers face in the current labor market.
Certifications as Tools for Promoting Economic Mobility

This report discusses how the characteristics of quality certifications potentially make them useful tools for increasing the economic mobility of workers, expanding the talent pools for employers, integrating certifications in credentialing and career pathways, as well as the pitfalls of focusing on certifications primarily as quick-fix, short-term credentials to get people into a job.
Accreditation Standards

This report highlights the broad consensus by the certification community that quality certifications are those that align with conformity standards for personnel certifications and are developed specifically for certifications by members of the certification community.
Recertification: A Distinguishing Feature of Certifications

This report provides an overview of the recertification process, how it varies among certifications, the extent to which it achieves its stated purposes, and recommendations for improvements.

This report highlights the overarching recommendations as well as questions that emerged during the research and on topics that need further research.

As a set, these reports are intended to help policymakers, practitioners, employers, and funders better understand the characteristics of certifications and their potential to help people enter the labor market for the first time or after a layoff, obtain a career goal, or reskill for a new career.

Now, more than ever, is an important time to understand the value of and how certifications can play a vital role in addressing re-employment, re-deployment, and re-education challenges that workers face in the current labor market as workers, companies, and educators are all scrambling to make changes that help them adjust to rapidly changing labor markets during and post-pandemic.

Project Partners:
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Project Advisory Committee

The members of our project advisory committee who gave us thoughtful feedback throughout the project include:

  • Stuart Andreason, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
  • Vanessa Brown, formerly of the National Student Clearinghouse
  • Michael Dalton, U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • Frank Swanzy Essien Jr., Lumina Foundation
  • Van Freeman, Opportunity@Work
  • Sean Gallagher, Northeastern University
  • Angie Graves, formerly of Aegis Living
  • Megan Healy, formerly with the Virginia Office of Governor Ralph Northam
  • John Kessler, Accenture
  • Casey Marks, (ISC)²
  • Mary Jean Schumann, George Washington University
  • Joel Simon, formerly of EMSI Burning Glass
  • Jeff Strohl, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce,
  • Michelle Van Noy, Rutgers University Education and Employment Research Center
  • Mary Walshok, formerly of the University of California San Diego
  • David Wilcox, Global Skills X-Change
  • Amanda Winters, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices
  • Cynthia Woodley, Professional Testing, Inc.