Do Professional HR Certifications Really Help Job Seekers?

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Professional HR certifications have become commonplace in the past 20 years.

The HR Certification Institute (HRCI), affiliated with SHRM, has awarded the PHR (Professional in Human Resources) and two other certifications to 115,000 professionals. WorldatWork has awarded a CCP (Certified Compensation Professional) and five other specialized certifications to 22,000 rewards professionals.

Anne Ruddy, President and CEO of WorldatWork, reports that over half of all WorldatWork certifications have been awarded in the past 10 years. Other organizations also offer HR certifications, including the Human Capital Institute and many universities.

Both HRCI and WorldatWork report that relevant certifications are often required for HR positions, that payment for most certifications is provided by the employee’s organization, and that testimonials and survey data indicate that HR professionals value certifications.

Do professional HR certifications really help job seekers? Three key points seem to come up after interviews with a number of HR executives:

1. HR executives vary widely in their views on certifications

HR executives do not appear to hold a common point of view about the value of certifications. Terry Henley, SPHR, CCP, Director of Compensation Services for the Employers Resource Association, advises job seekers that, “you should make certain that you have as many professionals certifications as possible, for that is an indication that you are serious about HR as a profession and career.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Lisa Bender, Chief Human Resource Officer of the MITRE Corporation, who leads a staff of 75 professionals. She asks, “Are certifications worth it for new hires? I believe they are not. Experience is a much greater advantage.” Others take intermediate positions, indicating that certifications could be helpful in certain circumstances, which we consider next.

2. Certifications may help junior job seekers

Most executives indicate that experience and an advanced degree (such as an MBA) from a reputable university are more important than certifications, especially for senior positions. However, certifications sometimes are a tie-breaker for junior positions, for which a solid track record is unlikely.

Bill Dixey, Vice President of HR Client Services at Clorox, indicates that, “When we look at hiring for junior positions that don’t require a lot of experience, certification means something. For junior to mid-level people it’s a swing vote in hiring decisions.” For senior positions, he said, “experience and track record are much more important than and go way beyond certifications.”

However, some companies prefer to see a combination of experience and certifications even in junior positions.

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Chris Donigan, Corporate Vice President of Human Resources at medical products company B. Braun Inc., offered interesting advice about when to seek certifications. “If you pursue certification before you have had three to four years of experience, you’ll be memorizing facts, not understanding the material. As with an MBA, it is better to get some experience first.”

3. Relevant certifications can help in seeking certain positions

Many executives indicate that certifications are relevant for certain types of positions, especially technical positions. For example, most executives indicate that they prefer a CCP or other WorldatWork certification for rewards positions. Some companies prefer certifications for generalist positions as well.

Charles Bicknell is Director of Human Resources at Cambia Health Solutions, a not-for-profit company in the Pacific Northwest that includes health insurance plans carrying the BlueCross and BlueShield brands. Cambia, he indicates, sees certifications for HR generalists “as an indicator, all things being equal, of discipline and heft when going toe to toe with a business partner.”

The bottom line? Job seekers cannot assume that a prospective employer will value HR certifications. However, certifications sometimes help and rarely hurt in a job search for junior positions, especially those in technical fields such as rewards.

Most companies now cover the cost of certifications, eliminating a major barrier to pursuing such credentials. Given the highly competitive job market, it is easy to understand why an increasing number of junior professionals are pursuing certifications.

Gerry Ledford will talk about How Employee Engagement Can Pay Off, and Why It Often Doesn’t at the TLNT Transform conference in Austin, TX Feb. 26-28, 2012. Click here for more information on attending this event. 

Gerald E. Ledford, Jr., Ph.D is a nationally recognized authority on human capital issues, including compensation and total rewards, talent management, organization design, change management, and management of the HR function. Currently he is president of Ledford Consulting Network in Redondo Beach, CA. Previously, Gerry was a leader at Sibson Consulting and served as Senior Vice President and National Practice Leader for Employee Effectiveness, the largest Sibson practice. He also was a research professor at the Center for Effective Organizations, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California. Contact him at .