Earning a human resources certification is neither easy nor cheap. Just ask Tracy Smejkal, who has spent hundreds of dollars on study materials and countless hours preparing for the HR Certification Institute exam for senior-level practitioners.
Smejkal, who was laid off in 2009, hopes the credential will give her career paa boost by helping her stand out in a tight job market. But she wonders if it's worth it. It's her second try at the rigorous Senior Professional in Human Resources, or SPHR, certification exam, which she plans to take in December.
"Companies say certification is preferred but nobody says it's required," says Smejkal, a former HR director for a state charter school. "It's vague."
She isn't the only one questioning the value of HR credentials. The HRCI, the most prominent HR certification organization, has come under increasing criticism over the low pass rate for its SPHR exam and its confusing relationship with the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM, professional association.
The institute offers three main credentials—the Professional in Human Resources, or PHR, the SPHR and the Global Professional in Human Resources, or GPHR. Earning certification requires a certain amount of work and educational experience and a passing score on an exam.
Slightly less than half—48 percent—of all SPHR hopefuls pass the test, according to current HRCI figures. Some test takers say the questions are purposely ambiguous; others are uncertain about which study guide will prepare them best for the exam. Many assume that the study kit offered by SHRM is the "official" test preparation method given the affiliation between the two organizations.
SHRM is the world's largest HR professional organization, with more than 250,000 members worldwide. Although HRCI and SHRM are legally separate organizations with different governing boards, they are closely intertwined. HRCI was created in 1973 by SHRM (then known as the American Society for Personnel Administration) and was originally called the ASPA Accreditation Institute.
However, the HRCI was founded as a separate organization with a different governing body for the purpose of adminstering certification exams, according to Mike Losey, former HRCI board member and past president and CEO of SHRM.
"The founding principle was that HRCI would issue the test and SHRM would handle the test preparation and stay out of the testing processing completely," he says.
Both organizations share the same Alexandria, Virginia, headquarters, and over the years board members from one group have sat on the board of the other. Currently, SHRM president and CEO Henry Jackson is an HRCI board member; he also has served as the chief financial officer for both organizations, according to the groups' separate 2009 Internal Revenue Service Form 990 tax filings.
"There is a hugely popular belief that people should use SHRM's system because they believe that SHRM is the exam, that they write it," says Karen Mattonen, a San Diego-based recruiter, who had long assumed that HRCI and SHRM were part of the same organization. "That's why people pay so much money for this material. Even some universities that offer test preparation classes call it the SHRM exam, which it's not."
In her opinion, she adds, "SHRM does nothing to clear up this misperception. SHRM's lack of transparency holds a poor standard for our industry. It should be made clear to people what they're getting when they pay that much money for a study kit."
In protest, Mattonen, who is also CEO of Hirecentrix, an online clearinghouse of information for the staffing industry, says she refused to buy the kit or take the exam. Soon after, she also dropped her SHRM membership.
Practitioners seeking certification information on SHRM's website can register for the exam through a link to HRCI and purchase the SHRM Learning System on the same page. Confusing the two groups might be understandable given their similar brand identity and website design.
The HRCI, however, makes clear on its website that it does not endorse any one program. Mary Power, executive director of the HRCI, said in a written statement that HRCI and SHRM are separate and that SHRM is not involved in any aspect of the test.
"We have strict guidelines so that no mention of test items are shared with any HRCI staff, SHRM staff or SHRM members," she said. "To ensure total confidentiality, two outside vendors conduct specific item testing and analysis after the subject-matter experts have completed their work."
SHRM, for its part, stands by its product. "Purchasers of the SHRM Learning System achieve, on average, better examination results than other applicants," Brian Dickson, SHRM's head of organizational programs and strategic partnerships, said in a written statement. He didn't address complaints about the confusing relationship between SHRM and the HRCI, and SHRM officials did not respond to requests for pass rates for people who used the SHRM Learning System.
But with the cost of the SHRM study kit running $815 for nonmembers and $650 for members, preparing for and taking the HRCI exams can easily top $1,000. The SPHR exam alone is $425 for nonmembers and $375 for SHRM members.
Some students also join study groups and take test prep classes offered online and at local universities, which can cost hundreds more. Practitioners must take the exam or complete 60 credit hours of continuing education every three years to stay current. Fees for the recertification exam range between $100 and $150.
SHRM officials did not respond to questions about how much the organization earns from the sale of its study materials.
While there are cheaper alternatives, such as a $345 study kit from Human Resource Certification Preparation, or HRCP, and a $25 study guide from HRCI, many people choose SHRM's product because they believe it will give them an edge.
Tashana Sims-Hudspeth, HR manager at Pearson Education Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, certainly hoped so. She had tried unsuccessfully to pass twice using other study materials, so she finally bought the pricier SHRM Learning System figuring it was her best chance for success. But she took the test in January 2010 and failed again.
"I had flashcards, I studied at lunch after work, on my breaks," says Sims-Hudspeth, who also enrolled in an online study course and joined a weekly study group. "I had my 11-year-old son flashing me questions while he watched TV. I drove my family crazy."
She still is a strong supporter of HR certification and plans to take the test a fourth time next spring. But she feels frustrated by the process. "I only saw a few questions that were remotely similar to the SHRM system," she says. "I thought, 'What is this?' It was nothing like what I had been studying. What's the purpose of buying the SHRM learning materials if they don't match up to the test?"
Ray Weinberg, former HRCI president and national exam development director who oversaw the exams between 1987 and 1993, concedes that the certification tests are tough to pass. But he considers that a good thing and feels that criticism of the exams is unfair.
"Pass rates are not a good indicator of how an exam performs," he says. "If you have a roomful of Albert Einsteins, they will do great, and if you have a room of Ray Weinbergs, probably not. The tests are designed to weed out those who have not mastered the body of knowledge. They are not meant to be easy."
Despite some test takers' concerns, officials at the HRCI expect a record number of applicants this fall, even with new, more stringent eligibility requirements for certification.
"There's a lot of buzz about certification as people are looking for ways to make themselves more competitive," says Amy Dufrane, the HRCI's chief operating officer. "We're definitely seeing an uptick in interest."
In 2010 there were more than 115,000 HRCI-certified practitioners, according to the organization's website. The HRCI did not to respond to requests for figures from previous years.
In addition to the HRCI, several other organizations offer HR credentials, including HR.com, a networking site for HR executives; WorldatWork, a not-for-profit that focuses on compensation and benefits; and the Human Capital Institute, which is geared toward talent management professionals. Most offer a one-time certificate upon the completion of a class and an exam, unlike the HRCI, which requires practitioners to recertify every three years.
While other professional associations have links to a credentialing organization, the relationship between SHRM and HRCI seems unusually confusing. And that confusion has been a long-standing problem.
"For the more than 20 years I worked at SHRM, there was confusion about the relationship between HRCI and SHRM," says Sue Meisinger, who served as SHRM president and CEO for six years until she retired in 2008. "SHRM members often just assumed they were the same organization. It wasn't uncommon for me to get calls with questions or complaints about HRCI, or where I had to explain that SHRM didn't have access to the exam questions and didn't make money on the exam registration fees."
The distinction seems no clearer today. A quick survey of several HR and academic websites, job postings and discussion forums turns up many erroneous references to "SHRM certification," giving the impression that SHRM, not the HRCI, issues the credentials.
In one heated thread on a LinkedIn discussion group, for example, many practitioners maintained that the relationship between SHRM and HRCI is apparent, while others expressed confusion, particularly over SHRM's involvement with the certification process.
"I paid the $1,300 to attend a certification course at a local university, and I found out after the PHR testing that there was no affiliation whatsoever," one member of the group writes.
"You're starting to see individuals questioning what SHRM is doing," says Bob McKenzie, an HR consultant who teaches certification classes at his office in Jacksonville, Florida using the HRCP study materials. "There's supposed to be a firewall between SHRM and HRCI, but we don't know if it's really there because of the high cost of tests and study materials, the low pass rate and the weird questions that are on the test.
"Is this confusion having a negative impact on the organization? Yes. It started as whispers and now it's getting louder."
—Workforce Management senior editor Ed Frauenheim contributed to this story.