Credentials for Today’s Safety Professional

Years ago I was approached about obtaining a credential to practice a trade.  I was not quite sure what the intent of the credential was but I knew it meant a lot of extra work for me.  Later, I found out that it not only meant more work it also meant that I would pay out a lot of money.  My first experience was through an apprenticeship program to obtain a journeyman’s license.  Since then I have found a great many credentials in the work place. Credentials can hinder or improve the workers ability to do their job and some can help you to earn more money.  With this in mind what are credentials?

Credentials come in many shapes and sizes.  If you thought they were just certifications you would not be wrong but you would be limiting the definition.  Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines credentials as “something that gives a title to credit or confidence.”   You may remember when career fields began requiring college degrees then degrees with specific majors.  When I worked for the fire department they used training and testing to determine when a person could use the title inspector, engineer and chief.  Safety is no exception.

There is also an unofficial but real meaning of credentials.  They are often used as discriminators between people applying for a specific thing, e.g. a job, promotion, and training.  Credentials are often referred to as gates.  The use of degrees, specific training completed, and certifications all seem to fall into the same category.  Those of us in the safety management career field have met one gate or we would not be employed now.  That was the gate of being qualified, reviewed by Civilian Personnel, to be hired into a specific position.  You met a second gate when you went for that first promotion and they required one year in the previous grade and additional training.  Then when you became a supervisor you were required to complete more training and serve a year probation to supervise other civilian employees.

Now we hear talk about completing advanced degrees and becoming certified just to name a few of the more talked about gates.  Sometimes it seems we are continually meeting requirements that allow our supervisors, managers, customers, and your employer to have confidence in our ability to do our job.  I have come to accept this as the way the world of work is and will always be.  So my second choice is whether I want to participate in it or not.  I believe that each of us must answer this question.

What happens if I don’t care to complete any of the advanced requirements or credentials?  The answer is vague.  There are still people being promoted that have not completed their advanced degrees and we still have people being placed in senior level positions with obtaining a certification.  However, I think we will see less and less of that in the future.  The bottom line is that none of us have to play the game and make the gates any more than we decide to.  However, that means that we may not receive all that is due us.  We must be able to prove two things; that we are a better employee than we were and that we are a better than the next employee.  One way to prove this is with a credential or certification.

Let us look at certifications.  There seems to me to be three important questions that each of us must ask ourselves about going through the process of becoming certified.

What do I owe myself as a person?
What do I owe my employer?
What do I owe my profession?

Our answers to these questions will help us decide if we owe it to ourselves to go through the work and expense of a certification.  To answer the first question we must decide where we want to go with our career.  We will then look at our employer and determine what role certification plays in eligibility for promotions, lateral transfers, or perhaps special training programs.  Lastly, do we participate in our profession and how is that affected by certification?

If we decide that certification is not what we want and we are happy with our knowledge and experiences in this career field that is an acceptable answer.  If we are not sure about how we feel about this matter we should discuss it with our supervisor, career program manager, or a colleague who is certified.  One point to remember is if we choose not to be certified we should still keep up with changes in safety through periodic training.  The process doesn’t stop here; we must go on and answer the other two questions.  What will be required from our employer?  This should be easier to answer than the first question.  If we are satisfied in our present job and our employer is happy the answer may be that we do not need to be certified.  If we look at our employer we must not forget that things change and we may want a promotion later that may be easier to get if we were certified.  I don’t believe certification will be a requirement for all jobs within the next ten years.  Unfortunately, that is not the issue here.  Will hiring officials begin to trust the certification to provide them with higher quality employees?  It is already beginning to happen.  Just last week a safety person missed out on a position apparently because the hiring official used the certification as a discriminator to help him choose between highly qualified candidates.  This is not the first time I have heard of this occurring.  The use of a certification for this purpose is an acceptable practice and is something you must consider when deciding whether you want to be certified.

What about our obligation to the profession?  Not everyone is interested in practicing in the safety profession.  Some people see it as more a job or position.  They see themselves as competent and making a significant contribution to their employer.  For people in this position a certification may not be worth anything.  However, others are interested in getting promotions, better positions, and making a contribution outside their employer for the profession at large.  For this person I think a certification is a must.  However, please don’t confuse the later person as being better than the first person.  We all have different priorities and goals in our life and it takes both kinds of people to get the job done.

What certification should you get?  This question is about as ambiguous as all the others I have asked are.  It really depends on you.  I sent off for packets from each of the certifying agencies and did a little research to find out what my general peer group thought of them.  I also did a little research on the job market.  I then decided how much money and time I had available to put out for certification.  I made my decision based on these answers.  I went through all the gates and was certified.  Years later I changed my mind and put out a little more money and effort and obtained what I thought was a better certification, better for me.  Why did I change my mind?  Over the years I had grown professionally, was better trained and had completed an advanced degree.  All of which put me in a better position to upgrade my certification to fit my needs.  I am telling you this so you will see that in my case it was a personal decision to become certified.  Furthermore, the decision is not final and certifications can be changed or discontinued.  I have colleagues who have changed their certification and some have discontinued theirs and in each case they were very satisfied with the decision.  I believe they were satisfied because it was their decision to make.  One lesson I have learned from my own experiences and those of others is if you don’t want to be certified do not go through the process.  It will not be worth your time and money.  Some of us may choose this and that is also an acceptable decision.

As for the employer’s role in certification, I think they are there to serve as our mentor and guide to help us improve not only ourselves but also our career program.  If you disagree with this position that is your right; however, I think the career field must improve each year to meet the new demands placed on us.   Should we require all personnel in the safety management career field to be certified?  I don’t believe that we should.  I also don’t believe that we will.  It is simply not necessary as a minimum standard.  There are a lot of positions that should be certified and some in fact are.  I have seen positions that advertised for gas free engineers and for conducting HAZWOPER classes.  Each of which asks for a certification.  I also agree that our employers should provide us with training that provides us with the advantage so that when we decide to test for certification we will pass the exam.  In addition, supervisors should consider incentive or cash awards for employees who are able to complete a certification regardless of which type.  This could be for their extra effort and assistance in raising the level of the safety career program.  That takes us full circle.  Becoming certified is still a personal choice that must involve consideration of your needs, your employer’s requirements and your commitment to your profession.  Your answer is your expression of who you are and your place in this career program and each of us should respect the decision you have made.

About Fred Fanning Author

Fred Fanning spent over 20 years in the safety profession. His final safety position was as the Director of Occupational Safety and Health for the U.S. Department of Commerce. He began writing in 1994, published his first book in 1998, and began writing professionally in 2015. He has authored and coauthored articles, written books, and chapters for technical books and stories for anthologies.
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