Competence vs Qualification Personnel Certification Programs

Example of Competence for Quality Management System Auditors (ISO 19011)

Technical note by Dr. George J. Anastasopoulos*

Personnel certification was, is and will remain a desirable asset for any modern professional. In order to achieve it, significant effort and expenses are usually invested. Many times candidates have to choose between a “competence-based” and a “qualification-based” certification program. And in most of the cases the latter is “easier” and “cheaper” to achieve. But is it actually worth it? What is the difference between Competence vs Qualification Personnel Certification Programs?

Competence, in ISO 19011:2011 standard, is defined as “the ability to apply knowledge and skills to achieve intended results”. Competence based certification means that the PCB is expected to examine candidate’s knowledge, skills, personal attributes and qualifications specific to the program and/or scope of certification. Qualification based certification is based on the applicant's education and qualifications, rather than on the basis of measurable competence. The following short dialog is catalytic to understand, in a few words, the difference between “competence” and “qualification”:

- “Do you know how to drive a car?”
- “I got trained and acquired the driving license but I am still not confident to drive a car.”
- “That means you have qualification, not competence.”

There are college drop-outs who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies as they have competencies, not qualifications. Therefore, having both qualifications and competencies helps immensely but people can still excel through competencies rather than qualifications.

International Organization for Standardization (ISO), recognizing this fact, decided that the certification of persons, according to International Standard ISO 17024, should be based on the demonstration of...
competencies, and not the demonstration of qualifications. International standard ISO 17024 standard sets the requirements and the framework, in a global level, for the operation of Personnel Certification Bodies (PCBs). Through using the ISO 17024 standard, business, industry and other key stakeholders have recognized that this is the optimum way of achieving confidence in the competence of the persons certified by the PCBs. ISO 17024 allows variation in how competence is demonstrated and consequently different PCBs will interpret and apply this in different ways.

Still, there are PCBs that are insisting in offering, non-accredited, qualification based programs on the assumption that a qualification equals competence. While that assumption may be correct in very many cases, and may continue to be acceptable to a range of users, it is less acceptable for those who operate in contexts which require a more rigorous demonstration of competence based on a valid examination. This creates a considerable confusion to the market and to certification candidates. And, of course, as qualification programs don’t satisfy all competence requirements they are non-accreditable.

Another key difference among the competence and qualification based programs is the change of emphasis from training to examination. Qualification based programs are emphasizing on the training while competence based programs are emphasizing on the results of training (assessing competencies through one or more methods of examination). And that examination must be valid, reliable and independent. Such certification programs should detail on defining competencies required. And it is those competencies that must be examined.

So is it possible to distinguish a competence from a qualification based program? The answer is simple: Check for the accreditation of the PCB that provides this program. If it is there, then check if achieved against ISO 17024 standard requirements. Then, check if the scope of accreditation includes that program. And, finally, check if the accreditation is provided by an Accreditation Body member of IAF (International Accreditation Forum). Al those requirements are also satisfied by the PCBs which are signatories of the MLA of IPC (International Personnel Certification Association).

*General Secretary IPC

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