Explaining the Rise of Professional Certification in the United States: A Divergence of Professional and Organizational Interests?

Friday, 3 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
CLM.3.06 (Clement House)
Kyle Albert, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
This paper analyzes the emergence of professional certification programs from the perspective of certifying organizations. Professional certification is a fast-growing yet rarely studied labor market phenomenon in which nonprofit associations offer credentials independent of the formal higher education system or state licensure boards.  While there has been a rapid growth in the number of national nonprofit membership associations offering certification in recent years, it is unclear whether these new credentials represent the sort of occupational closure expected by theorists in the sociology of professions or are motivated by other factors. In this paper I draw upon insights gained through interviews with credentialing program managers and an analysis of hundreds of items in credentialing industry trade journals, blogs, in-person conference presentations, and other sources to argue that the need for non-dues revenue as national associations struggle to retain members is instrumental in encouraging the growth of certification programs in many professions where there is little market demand for certification. I suggest that several mechanisms are leading associations to implement certification programs without careful consideration of how they will affect relevant labor markets, including the growth of a career path for association managers that leaves some leaders without a clear view of the professions they serve, the use of a common set of vendors offering pre-packaged product lines for associations, and frequent benchmarking among nonprofit membership associations.

In addition to drawing insights from a general overview of the certificaion field, I use an in-depth case study of a single organization, the Society for Human Resource Management, to show how the recent launch of a certifiation program by one of America's largest professional associations illustrates the growing divergence between professional membership associations and the interests of the professions they serve.  In the case of SHRM, I show that the decision to end its relationship with an existing independnet credentialing body resulted, in part from of a lack of grassroots member involvement in the decision-making process of the national association and the encroachment of a profit-oriented logic on the association's governance practices.  I argue that SHRM is by no means a unique case and similar pressures exist to some degree in most if not all professional membership associations.  While not the only root cause of the boom in professional certificaion programs in the United States, the tendency for professional associations to treat themselves as independent, profit-making entities should not be overlooked as a source of new credentials.