Closing the assessment gap

Professional certification and the growing need to measure employee competencies

Organizations are increasingly faced with the challenge of finding competent people to fill jobs and help fulfil long-term business goals. As a result, HR departments are under growing pressure to find, shape and maintain top talent.

To ease the burden of figuring out whether or not a candidate has the necessary skills, HR professionals rely on professional and vocational personnel certification bodies (PCBs) to assess and certify people.

These bodies include: provincial HR associations, which award the Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) designation; the Canadian Payroll Association, which awards the Certified Payroll Manager (CPM) designation; the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans, which awards the Certified Employee Benefits Specialist (CEBS) designation; provincial chartered accountants associations, which award the Chartered Accountant (CA) designation; and many more.

When HR narrows its focus to candidates who have a professional certification, it can quickly and easily filter candidate applications. Once hired, HR can be confident the new employee has a benchmark level of knowledge and fulfils any regulatory requirements.

So the hiring of independently certified staff theoretically streamlines HR processes and ensures new employees meet industry practice standards. But does it guarantee competency levels?

With HR strategy focused on training and competency, it is critical to measure the competencies of an individual, not just her knowledge of a particular area. As a result, HR professionals need to trust PCBs are actively measuring the competency of members, not just knowledge.

Standards bodies around the world have recognized this need and are introducing standards that require the PCBs to assess competency based on an individual’s demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills and, where relevant, demonstrated personal attributes, as defined in the certification scheme.

Imperfect tests

Typically PCBs certify individuals using the same generic formula involving proof of education and experience, valid references and an objective test such as a multiple-choice exam.

The rationale for this formula is to demonstrate that an educated individual with job experience should have the requisite competencies to work in a given profession. The test then serves as a validation of the individual’s breadth of knowledge.

Is it appropriate to assume a degree or diploma coupled with a few years of experience demonstrate competency? Employers know that formal education and experience do not always translate into stellar on-the-job performance, and this can lead to people being employed despite incompetence.

If education and experience are not sufficient, that leaves multiple-choice tests which, according to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), are used by 77 per cent of PCBs. While these tests are a valid and reliable means for assessing cognitive skills and breadth of knowledge, it is unclear how well they assess competencies.

High costs a challenge

On the other end of the spectrum, practical-skill tests provide a more valid assessment of competencies. The observation of an individual’s performance in a workplace context affords assessors a more accurate index of abilities. However, only 13 per cent of PCBs use this method because the cost of administering practical-skill tests can be prohibitive.

The cost for the traditional qualification-based certification is around $500. Achieving the same certification through skills-based examination can cost more than $2,000.

Practical-skill testing is currently being applied almost universally in areas that require high-stakes assessment, including hazardous professions such as crane operators and high-risk professions such as medicine. The risks in these areas immediately justify the high cost of assessment because the incompetence of a trained professional can potentially lead to injury or death.

In Canada, for example, skills examiners regularly visit teaching hospitals across the country to evaluate medical students. Trained actors are hired to play the role of a standard patient who is being examined. Even though this is quite costly, it is a highly effective assessment process.

But with the cost of skills examinations unlikely to come down and the inability of multiple-choice testing to demonstrate true competence, how can PCBs close the assessment gap to create a better balance?

Virtual assessment

There is a need for methods that provide a valid assessment of applied skills and knowledge in a format that can be used easily and economically.

Simulations and virtual environments are already proving to be cost-effective ways to assess competency. Simulations are being used as a training tool in many industries and Microsoft and Cisco are already using them for technical certification.

Over time, simulations may become a universally acceptable certification solution for PCBs in all industries to ensure Canadian professionals have proven competencies, not just knowledge.

Stephen Davis is the vice-president of business development for Distil Interactive in Ottawa, which helps international standards organizations develop and implement new competency-based training and assessment programs. He can be reached at [email protected] . For more information, visit

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