Do you have an HR certification? What if you already have a great job without a certification? Which HR certification is best? Let’s explore the reasons why an HR certification can be valuable and which certifications may be best for different stages of your career.

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What Are HR Certifications?

An HR certification demonstrates an understanding of the skills, competencies, and knowledge needed to be a successful HR practitioner. A certification is earned by taking a test, and most tests also have human resources work experience and education requirements associated with them. While some of the information the different certifications test for can be learned on the job, true mastery usually requires study and analysis in addition to work experience. Ultimately, an HR certification gives confidence to HR professionals that they can handle the complexities of their roles, as well as credibility to potential employers.

How Important Are Certifications for a Career in HR?

Recent data shows that an HR certification can be a great benefit for professionals who want to enjoy career growth and respect as trusted HR partners. A certification distinguishes those who have invested in their careers and understand the body of knowledge that successful practitioners need to know. In fact, most senior HR professionals, such as vice presidents of human resources and chief human resources officers, have at least one HR certification.

Here are a few of the valuable benefits of certification.

  • Employment. An HR certification is increasingly becoming a job requirement for HR positions. Even though some job postings indicate that a certification is “preferred” instead of “required,” more hiring managers are giving preference to candidates with a certification.
  • Promotion opportunities. Research shows that an HR certification increases the chance of promotion at every job level, but is especially valuable for those in the early stages of their careers.
  • Salary boost. Certified HR professionals seem to enjoy higher pay and higher annual increases than those without certification, especially in some locations, industries and job levels.
  • Career development. Most HR certifications require recertification activities such as continuing education and on-the-job projects. These activities further enhance the ongoing learning that is so essential for mastery.
  • Networking and resources. Certifying organizations offer memberships and networking opportunities to their members. Though not limited to certified professionals, memberships in these organizations provide resources that can be valuable to certified professionals, including continuing education and keeping abreast with changing trends and challenges in the field.

The Most Popular HR Certifications

Until 2014, the most popular certifications were offered by the Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI), which was affiliated with the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM). Those organizations separated in 2014, and each now offers its own certifications. Other organizations, including WorldatWork and the Association for Talent Development (ATD), offer certifications as well. Following is a brief summary of the major certification options for HR professionals.

HRCI

The Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI) remains a popular choice for HR certifications. Many HR professionals with a few years of experience will begin with the Professional in Human Resources (PHR) certification test and then consider other certifications from HRCI or from another organization. The Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification is more advanced than the PHR and requires more on-the-job experience. Recently, HRCI also added the Associate Professional in Human Resources (aPHR) certification option, which has no work experience requirement and is a more basic option for those who wish to begin the certification journey.

HRCI offers other more specialized certifications, such as California-specific certifications and international certifications. Its most comprehensive and difficult is a global certification, the GPHR.

SHRM

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers two certification options: the SHRM-CP and the SHRM-SCP. The SHRM-CP designates a Certified Professional while the SHRM-SCP is a Senior Certified Professional.

WorldatWork

WorldatWork offers several certification options for those who want to specialize. They include the Certified Compensation Professional (CCP) program for those focusing on compensation and total rewards, and the Certified Benefits Professional (CBP) certification with an emphasis on benefits.

ATD

The Association for Talent Development (ATD), formerly known as the American Society for Training and Development, offers two certifications for training and professional development. The Associate Professional in Talent Development (APTD) is for talent development professionals early in their careers (with three years of experience). The Certified Professional in Talent Development (CPTD) requires at least five years of related experience.

Others

Several other organizations offer certifications for those in HR-related careers, and more are appearing every year. The Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC) offers a Certified Professional Coach (CPC) credential. The Academy to Innovate HR (AIHR) offers nine HR certificate programs. The Human Capital Institute offers the Strategic HR Leadership (SHRL) certificate, among several other options.

How To Choose The Right HR Certification For You

With so many certificate options, which is best? Following are suggestions to help you decide.

Step 1: Consider Your Career Goals

First, consider your career goals. The HRCI and SHRM certifications tend to have a broad focus for generalists, while the ATD and WorldatWork certifications are more specialized. Many HR professionals choose one of the HRCI or SHRM certifications first and then obtain specialized certifications for stronger expertise in a niche area, such as international human resource management, compensation, or training and development.

Step 2: Check the Qualifications

Next, review the qualifications required for the certifications you are interested in. You can take HRCI’s aPHR program without any HR-related work experience, but most other programs have work experience and education qualifications before you can apply.

Step 3: Ask for Recommendations

Consider asking HR-certified colleagues and associates why they chose the certifications they have. If you aren’t acquainted with any, you might check online forums such as HR.com, LinkedIn or local SHRM chapters. Ask for their suggestions for preparing for the certification exams, as well.

Step 4: Consider the Time Commitment

As you begin preparing for certification, you will likely participate in a study group or certification class. It’s not uncommon for someone to spend 100 hours or more studying and preparing for a certification exam.

Step 5: Review the Requirements to Stay Certified

Certifications must be renewed every three years through re-testing or documented activities. Each certifying organization has different requirements in terms of keeping your certification current.  For instance, many have a list of approved activities, such as webinars, on-the-job experiences, conferences and college courses.

Step 6: Consider the Cost

Certification costs vary with the type of certification. As of this writing in 2021, for the HRCI and SHRM exams you can plan to spend $1000 or more to participate in a test preparation class and $400 or more to take a certification test. Self-study materials will be $50 to $425 if you choose to study on your own. Many employers will pay all or part of the fees involved in certification, so it’s smart to ask your employer what help they will offer as you consider your options.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About HR Certifications

Most HR certification programs allow work experience to substitute for a college degree.
The most common and well-known certifications are the PHR and SPHR certifications from HRCI and the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP certifications from SHRM.
Some HR professionals don’t have a college degree, and some HR professionals learn on the job instead of earning a certificate. For those who wish to advance in their careers, however, a certificate is highly recommended.

Carol Eliason Nibley, SPHR, GPHR and Principal Consultant at PeopleServe, has more than 25 years of experience in human resources, most recently serving as Vice President of Human Resources for a technology company in Utah County. Carol has taught HR certificate courses at Mountainland Technical College and in other settings for more than 12 years.

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