Deciding on a particular training program or a specific certification to pursue can be confusing and difficult. Extensive labor market information about careers is available from sources like O*Net and the Occupational Outlook Handbook, but data about specific certificates and credentials can be harder to find. Here are a few places to start.

  • Find local programs that best fit one’s needs on the Program/Provider Directory from Illinois WorkNet.
  • Careers, Wages, and Trends from the Illinois WorkNet Center can help you find in demand occupations and provides brief overviews of a variety of career pathways and the credentials involved.
  • Provider websites like MicroTrain’s list of “WIOA Approved Courses” offer accessible information about course breakdowns, costs, and hours spent on course to better compare course’s costs and benefits.
  • The Occupational Outlook Handbook also provides details about job specific credentials in the “How to Become One” tab of any career. Here is information about jobs requiring various credentials in the US.
  • Payscale’s Certification Index shows the average salary and hourly earnings rates of jobs that require specific certifications. They also offer interactive charts of career pathways, that link to detailed earning summaries.

To better understand the financial benefits of earning a certification, here is a sample of credentials and corresponding salaries, hourly rates, job titles from Payscale:

The graph makes it clear that similar credentials have earning variability. If someone decides to go into the health sector and acquires a Basic Life Support Certification, their salary will vary depending on their position. An EKG Technician with the certification would be earning an average of $33,939 ($14.47/hr), while a Patient Care technician would be earning around $27,544 ($12.30/hr). ((Numbers from Payscale.com))

Important Differences in Credentials

Credential and certification lengths are broadly broken down into two sections—long term and short term certifications. Short term certifications are usually no more than a year in length. Long term certifications typically take a year or more to complete.

  • When compared with other credentials, associates degrees are associated with higher returns in almost every field. Studies have associated long term certifications to: increased likelihood of being employed (9% for women, 11% for men), increased wages and to a lesser extent even increased number of hours worked (1.8 hours for women, 0.7 hours for men [not statistically significant for men]). These gender-specific findings were especially true for health related credentials and computer related credentials respectively. Studies have shown that, on average, associates degrees and long-term certificates/credentials increased quarterly earnings returns of about $2,000 for women (substantial) and $1,500 for men (significant). ((Mina Dadgar and Madeline Joy Trimble. Labor Market Returns to Sub-Baccalaureate Credentials: How Much Does a Community College Degree or Certificate Pay? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 0162373714553814, first published on November 5, 2014 doi:10.3102/0162373714553814))
  • Short term certifications have shown minimal value for individuals earning these degrees. Short term certificates increase returns by about $300 for women and men per year. For the past few years there has been a dramatic national increase in the number of people earning short term certifications. Although short-term certificates have not shown to be significantly related to labor market outcomes, there could be benefits to such credentials beyond the obvious financial numbers.
  • The field of the credential is a major factor in its benefits. Associates degrees in nursing, for example, can increase women’s wages by 37.7%, while a degree in humanities is not associated with wage gains. ((Mina Dadgar and Madeline Joy Trimble. Labor Market Returns to Sub-Baccalaureate Credentials: How Much Does a Community College Degree or Certificate Pay? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 0162373714553814, first published on November 5, 2014 doi:10.3102/0162373714553814))

Evidence is limited as to why there is such a large gap in returns between associates/long term certifications and short-term certifications. That being said, short term certificates may be beneficial to students in other ways. These programs tend to attract lower performing students and lower income adults. These programs are often the more accessible option because they have open door admission, flexible schedules, vocational orientations, lower costs (compared to long-term credentials), offer shorter time frames, and advertise potential paths to economic opportunity. Short term programs are especially useful to folks who need to get back into the work force as quickly as possible, and/or for those who need the flexibility to continue working while taking steps toward associated degrees.

Although short term credentials provide increased accessibility to higher education and can potentially provide entry into a new field, they do not guarantee wage gains. Degree earners can unlock and optimize the financial benefits of their degrees by using their credential as a building block that allows them to work toward long-term/associates degrees. The best programs offering short-term degrees will have “stackable credential” options, where certifications can be counted and work toward getting the individual a long term degree, and ultimately function as paths toward long term mobility and wage gains. Because short term certificates do not guarantee financial benefits it is increasingly important to know the program’s actual costs (financial and otherwise).