Frequently asked questions about data on certifications and licenses

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Why does the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) collect information on whether a person has a certification or license?

BLS collects information on certifications and licenses in the Current Population Survey (CPS) to measure the prevalence of these credentials and tie them to labor market outcomes, including earnings.

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What are certifications and licenses?

Certifications and licenses are credentials that demonstrate a level of skill or knowledge needed to perform a specific type of job. Both terms refer to time-limited credentials that need to be renewed periodically.

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What is the difference between a certification and a license?

In the CPS, the difference between a certification and a license is based on who issued the credential. Specifically:

  • Certification
    • Credential awarded by a non-governmental certification body
    • Based on an individual demonstrating, through an examination process, that they have acquired the designated knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform a specific job
    • Does not convey a legal authority to work in an occupation
    • Examples: information technology certifications and project management professional certifications
  • License
    • Credential awarded by a governmental licensing agency based on pre-determined criteria
    • The criteria may include some combination of degree attainment, certifications, educational certificates, assessments (including state-administered exams), apprenticeship programs, or work experience
    • Conveys a legal authority to work in an occupation
    • Examples: cosmetology licenses and teacherís licenses

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What types of credentials are not considered a certification or license in the CPS?

A professional certification or license shows you are qualified to perform a specific type of job. Other types of credentials are excluded, such as:

  • Licenses to engage in personal, as opposed to professional, activities. For example, regular driverís licenses are excluded, but commercial driverís licenses (CDLs) are included.
  • Licenses issued to businesses, such as liquor licenses or vending licenses.
  • Educational certificates awarded by an educational institution—such as a community college, a 4-year college or university, or a trade school—based on completion of all requirements for a program of study. While this training may help in the performance of a specific job, educational certificates are not necessarily required or considered proof of qualification. These types of credentials are not time-limited. Examples of educational certificates include a digital arts certificate from an online university or a motorcycle mechanics diploma from a community college.
  • Certificates of attendance or participation in short-term training.

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How are certifications and licenses measured by BLS?

BLS uses three questions in the CPS to measure currently active certifications and licenses. These questions are based on those developed by the federal Interagency Working Group on Expanded Measures of Enrollment and Attainment (GEMEnA).

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What are the questions on certifications and licenses in the CPS?

The CPS asks three questions about certifications and licenses of all people in the survey age 15 and older. However, like the CPS labor force estimates, estimates of the number of people and proportion of the population with certifications or licenses are restricted to those age 16 and older. These questions are based on the work of the Interagency Working Group on Expanded Measures of Enrollment and Attainment (GEMEnA). The questions are:

  1. Do you have a currently active professional certification or a state or industry license? Do not include business licenses, such as a liquor license or vending license.

    This first question is used to identify people with certifications or licenses. People may have more than one of these credentials.

  2. Were any of your certifications or licenses issued by the federal, state, or local government?

    The second question is asked of people who answered "yes" to the first question. According to the definition developed by GEMEnA, licenses are issued by a governmental body. People who answered "yes" to the second question are classified as having a license. People with a license may also have a certification.

  3. Earlier you told me you had a currently active professional certification or license. (Is/was) your certification or license required for your (job/main job/job from which you are on layoff/job at which you last worked)?

    The third question is asked later in the interview of employed and unemployed people who were identified in the first question as having a certification or license. (People not in the labor force are not asked this question.) The wording of the question changes slightly (as indicated above) depending on a personís employment status. In this question, "required" can mean either legally required (such as a license to practice medicine) or required by their employer (such as a computer maintenance certification).

    People may have credentials that they do not use for their current job, such as a computer technician who obtained a real estate license for personal interest or for a second job. Also, people sometimes have certifications or licenses that may be helpful for their jobs but are not required by law or by their employer.


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How often are the questions on certifications and licenses asked?

The CPS is administered to a household for 4 months in a row, followed by 8 months in which the household is not part of the survey, and then the household is again included in the survey for another 4 consecutive months. For example, a household that is surveyed in January, February, March, and April will be interviewed again in January, February, March, and April of the following year.

The questions on certifications and licenses are asked of all household members who are age 15 and older during the first interview. The questions are re-asked during the fifth interview a year later. In addition to the first and fifth interviews, the third question (whether the certification or license is or was required for their job) is asked whenever a person has either changed jobs or become employed or unemployed. During months that the questions are not asked, the responses collected earlier are retained to establish certification or licensing status in the same manner used for other demographic questions (about race, disability, etc.).

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How were the new CPS questions on certifications and licenses developed?

The federal Interagency Working Group on Expanded Measures of Enrollment and Attainment (GEMEnA) was formed in 2009 to develop questions to measure the prevalence and key characteristics of nondegree credentials, such as certifications and licenses, for existing federal surveys. At that time, there were few federal sources of data on certifications and licenses. The question development process took several years to complete and included cognitive testing, focus groups, consultation with experts, and pilot studies. (Learn more about the work of GEMEnA.)

After vetting the GEMEnA questions, BLS modified the questions slightly so that they could be incorporated into the CPS questionnaire starting in January 2015. Learn more about this process in Adding questions on certifications and licenses to the Current Population Survey.

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Are peopleís occupations used to identify whether they have a certification or license?

No. Job titles may be informative, but are not sufficient to measure the presence of a certification or license. For example, whether an occupation requires a license may vary by state. In addition, there are some occupations where a certification or license may be helpful, but not mandatory. In the CPS, whether someone has one of these credentials is determined by the response to the question, "Do you have a currently active professional certification or a state or industry license?"

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When were questions on certifications and licenses added to the CPS?

The questions on certifications and licenses were introduced to the CPS in January 2015.

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Were there any problems in data collection when the questions were added to the CPS?

Yes. There were a number of problems encountered during the first year of data collection. While most of these were minor, there was one significant issue. Due to a programming error, the third question (is your certification or license required for your job) was not asked in May and June 2015 of households in their first and fifth interviews. Because of the lack of data in these 2 months, 2015 annual average data for the third question are not available. For more information about the fielding and collection of these questions, see Adding questions on certifications and licenses to the Current Population Survey.

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Are the CPS data on certifications and licenses comparable to data collected in other surveys?

No. Data on certifications and licenses from the CPS cannot be directly compared with data from other surveys. Several different household surveys have added or plan to add certification and licensing questions based on the work of the federal Interagency Working Group on Expanded Measures of Enrollment and Attainment (GEMEnA). For example, the Census Bureauís Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) added questions about certification and licensing in 2012 (in Wave 13 of the 2008 SIPP).

Although data users may wish to compare the estimates from the CPS to those from the SIPP or other surveys that include questions on certifications and licenses, for several reasons it is unlikely that data from these surveys will yield identical estimates. These reasons include differences in the mode of survey collection, the context of the survey, the questions that are used in each survey, and the population of interest. These differences limit the ability to compare data from different surveys.

Mode of survey collection. The choice of how to physically administer a survey is referred to as the mode of the survey. Variations in the mode of conducting a survey include forms that arrive in the mail to be filled out and returned, telephone interviews, personal interviews, and answering questions on a web site, among others. Different modes of data collection can result in different responses to the very same question. Responses may also differ depending on whether the survey is self-administered or conducted by a trained interviewer.

Context of the survey. The context of survey questions also has been found to influence the respondentsí understanding of questions. For example, asking about certifications and licenses in a labor force survey like the CPS might elicit a different response than questions asked in a survey about educational attainment.

Questions used in the survey. The exact wording, response options, and sequence of questions will affect how individuals respond to them. For example, although the SIPP and CPS both use questions based on the GEMEnA research, the questions are not identical. The 2012 data collected in the SIPP were based on nine questions, while the CPS asks three.

Population of interest. The population that the survey is designed to focus on must be clearly defined in order to understand a surveyís data, or to compare data from multiple sources. For example, the population of interest for the CPS is the civilian noninstitutional population age 16 and over. Other surveys may focus only on people in specific age categories or only on people with certain levels of educational attainment. Comparison of CPS data to data from a survey using a different population of interest would need to account for these differences.

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What CPS estimates are available on people with certifications and licenses?

BLS publishes annual average tables that include basic demographic characteristics of people with and without credentials such as age, sex, race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, and educational attainment. Tables are also available by employment status, industry, occupation, and earnings. Currently, there are no plans to publish monthly CPS data on people with certifications or licenses; however, this will be reevaluated as more data become available.

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Are CPS data on certifications and licenses available for states, cities, or local areas?

No. Because of the relatively small sample size in most states, BLS does not plan to tabulate subnational estimates on certifications and licenses.

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Are variables derived from the CPS questions on certifications and licenses available to the public?

Yes. Beginning with data for January 2017, variables for all three questions were included on the monthly CPS microdata files and can be found at the US Census Bureauís DataWeb FTP page. CPS microdata on certifications and licenses for 2015 and 2016 are available in a separate extract file on the DataWeb FTP page. The 2015 extract file contains variables for the first two questions. The 2016 extract file contains variables for all three questions. As with all CPS microdata, personally identifiable information has been removed.

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Were there any additional changes to the CPS with the introduction of the certification and licensing questions?

Yes. To limit lengthening the survey and increasing respondent burden, three educational attainment questions were removed from the CPS when the certification and licensing questions were added. Data from these educational attainment questions had never been published by BLS.

One of the eliminated questions asked people with a Masterís degree about the length of their Masterís program. The other questions asked people with a Bachelorís degree if they had ever taken graduate or professional courses, and if they had completed six or more of such courses.

Before removal, stakeholders and researchers were consulted to assess the impact of this decision. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) also was consulted and agreed that certification and licensing questions were more important than the removed questions.

More information on the decision to remove these questions can be found in Adding questions on certifications and licenses to the Current Population Survey.

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Last Modified Date: April 28, 2017