A lot of people are confused about the difference between certifications vs certificates, but when it comes to value in the job market, one qualification has a clear edge with employers.

If you’re one of the people who have trouble telling the credentials apart, you’re not alone. A federal study using focus groups and interviews found people often had trouble distinguishing between different kinds of credentials—even those who had acquired postsecondary credentials.

Certifications are awarded by an independent body, often trade or industry associations, and usually involve an examination process. Because certifications are independently verified, employers often use them as a check on whether an applicant has the specific skills or competencies needed. In particular, employers use certifications when the skills involved are technical and don’t align with traditional degrees.

That said, our research has found a relatively few certifications dominate job market demand. Some 50 certifications account for two-thirds of all requests made by employers in job postings. Information technology and health care take up the largest share of certification demand. Health care and a few other fields are special cases, however, because certifications are also often connected with state licensing requirements, effectively making them mandatory.

Certificates are short-term, professionally oriented credentials awarded by an educational institution (as opposed to an industry body) based on completion of specific coursework. Certificates are typically completed in one year of academic study or less.

In our research, we found employers overwhelmingly request certifications vs certificates. In 2015, approximately 1.5 million job postings asked for certifications, compared to only 130,000 postings that asked for certificates. You can see this gap in demand in the table below of the top five certificates and certifications.

Demand for Top 5 Certifications vs Top 5 Certificates

Top 5 CertificationsNumber of Job Posting RequestsTop 5 CertificatesNumber of Job Posting Requests
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)276,880Home Health Aide18,007
Project Management Certification (PMP)202,971Paralegal Certificate12,234
Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)91,981Phlebotomy Certificate10,485
Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)67,973Medical Billing and Coding8,466
Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)67,746Typing Certificate4,245

It’s important to note that we excluded licensed occupations from this comparison, because that effectively makes the credential mandatory, and we wanted to find out how employers valued credentials when there is no regulatory pressure. There are a number of health care certificates that are requirements for fields like surgical technicians and medical assistants.

To be clear, we’re not saying that job seekers who get certificates learn less than those who get certifications. Nor are we saying that having a certificate won’t give a job applicant a boost over candidates who don’t have the qualification. But what is clear from the job posting data is that employers are less likely to specifically request certificates when looking for candidates. The most likely explanation for certifications’ stronger market value comes from the fact that they represent standardized, industry-wide criteria.

And while only a few certifications have real traction in the job market, the ones that are in demand can provide a substantial salary boost. Career fields that value certifications provide an average 18% salary premium over those that don’t.

So is it worth pursuing either a certification or a certificate? It depends on the field, and the cost. Some credentials pay off big, and others don’t. Before a job seeker goes looking for additional credentials, it’s worth considering the return on investment: how much you pay for the credential, and what kind of salary and career boost you get in return.

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