When you're working hard to complete your online HR management degree, it's difficult to think about taking on more work to pursue a professional certification. But while it isn't required for employment, HR certification can elevate your standing among job applicants, putting you in the running for higher-level positions and possibly increasing your earning potential.

A certification signals to employers that you are dedicated to your profession, have mastered best practices and possess both relevant and practical knowledge of your field.

"The value of certification is significant in industry," says Saint Leo's associate professor of human resource management, Dr. Adam Shoemaker. "Many organizations prioritize hiring HR staff — particularly above entry-level positions — who have it."

Who issues that certification is another issue. Two agencies are vying to establish themselves as the premier organization for certification, the Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Dr. Shoemaker sifts through the acronyms to help online HR management students decide where to invest their valuable time.

Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI)

The Human Resources Certification Institute (HRCI) was established in 1975 and is the largest HR certification organization in the world. It has about 140,000 certified HR professionals working in more than 100 countries and territories. It's also the more respected certifying body, according to Dr. Shoemaker. The organization offers four levels of certification, depending on your level of experience and degree. They are:

  • Associate Professional in HR (aPHR)
  • Professional in HR (PHR)
  • Strategic Professional in HR (SPHR)
  • Global Professional in HR (GPHR)

There is also a specialized certificate for the state of California, which has different rules than the rest of the United States.

The HRCI exams are challenging, with a pass rate of about 60 percent for first-time test takers. Although an HR degree is not required to take the HRCI exams, the tests are experience and knowledge-based, and a strong academic background in HR can boost your exam performance, according to HRCI's website.

Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) started offering two certificates in recent years, the SHRM-CP (Certified Professional) and the SHRM-SCP (Senior Certified Professional). Your educational background and work experience determine your eligibility for the exam. Candidates are not required to have HR degrees or HR titles, although they need to have an HR role of some capacity. The SHRM-SCP requires more experience but is better suited for senior-level HR professionals who primarily deal with strategy.

SHRM also offers an Assurance of Learning assessment, but that grants candidates a certificate of learning and is not the same as a certification. It is intended for traditional or nontraditional students with little or no HR experience who are not yet eligible to take the SHRM-CP exam.

What HR Certification is right for you?

SHRM and HRCI have common roots but are distinct organizations. SHRM has represented the HR community for more than 68 years and even created HRCI more than 40 years ago. But while HRCI's emphasis has always been certification, SHRM is a new player in that regard.

You don't need certifications from both organizations. Dr. Shoemaker recommends choosing the organization with the established reputation — HRCI. SHRM certifications, Dr. Shoemaker says, are currently perceived as a "distant second in terms of rigor and professional credibility."

And be prepared to challenge yourself. Dr. Shoemaker suggests that students who are eligible take the exam for the highest level of HRCI certificate they can. Be prepared to study hard, even after receiving your hard-won HR Management degree.

"Some of the questions are pretty tough," Dr. Shoemaker says, "even for a professor."

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Image credit: NeydtStock on Shutterstock and courtesy Dr. Shoemaker