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You may not need a license to practice HR or benefits administration, but earning an HR certification tells your employer (and potential employers) that you know your stuff.

Various organizations offer an alphabet soup of certifications. But is certification even necessary for your career path? If it is, which certification is right for you? Do your homework: The most common certifications may not be your best career choice.

Choosing the right certification

The Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI), part of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), offers the most popular HR certifications.

HRCI confers the well-known Professional in Human Resources (PHR), Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) and Global Professional in Human Resources (GPHR) certifications, which require HR experience and understanding of general HR principles.

PHR and SPHR certifications are for those with varied HR experience or who wear several HR “hats.”

“If you’re going into an organization that’s smaller or if you’re going to have to do all of the HR, these would definitely be important,” says Cornelia Springer, HRCI’s executive director.

The average pass rate for the PHR test over the past five years stands at 66%; 57% for the SPHR test.

If you’re an HR specialist in compensation, benefits, payroll or work/life (or plan a move to those areas), look more closely at certifications from smaller, more targeted groups, such as the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, American Payroll Association or WorldatWork.

Those certifications involve several exams and usually demand more preparation than general certifications (see box on page 2 for details on leading certifications).

Should you enroll in a prep course?

Most organizations offer courses to help people prepare for their exams.

Enrolling in an online or a face-to-face prep class provides instructor interactions and the opportunity to network with other applicants. Plus, it forces you to set aside time to focus on the exam.

But if you’re a self-starter, put your energy instead into the comprehensive self-study materials that each association offers.

Two certifications: one too many?

Some experts advise not limiting yourself to a single certification.

“It’s valuable to have more than one because, for those people who want to move up to be a true leader in HR, at some point every job becomes multifunctional,” says Luke Malloy, Certified Compensation Professional (CCP) and director of compensation for United Health Group. Malloy currently is in the early stages of his Certified Employee Benefit Specialist coursework.

Most of the skills necessary for one certification build on those needed for others; courses for one often count toward recertification credit for another.

Moving up, earning more

No research proves that certified professionals enjoy higher salaries or quicker promotions, but certification organizations suggest they do.

Malloy says he and several colleagues sought out certification as building blocks for career advancement. Specialized certification also can be a great way to break into a new field.

“When we went to make our next career move, the fact that we had our CCP was worth more in the market,” says Malloy.

John Anthony Meza, associate director of national community involvement for KPMG, agrees. When he hires HR pros, a certification “helps bump someone up,” he says, noting that “having something above and beyond your bachelor’s is going to help you.”

He believes certification indicates the bearer has broad knowledge of the field or specialty, even if the person’s job focuses only on a narrow part of it.

To consider before enrolling

Before plunking down hundreds of dollars for a certification, consider:

Cost. Talk to your employer about using continuing education funds to start your certification training.

Prep support. Take practice exams that offer rationales for each answer. You’ll learn where your strengths are and what areas you need to concentrate on.

Relevance to your goals. When choosing a certification, check ads for the job you want. Which certifications are employers requesting? Do the job titles of recently certified professionals fit your future goals?

How you’ll capitalize on your success. Make sure current and futureemployers know you have earned acertification. Ask your testing agencyto supply a letter template that you can use to advertise your certification.

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