Talent Management

What’s the Best HR Certification?

Published by in Talent Management

Which HR certification offers the best bang for your buck? We did the work to find out.

Person with a list of qualifications

Whether you’re a newcomer to the HR profession or a seasoned veteran with years of experience, the right HR certification can be the exact thing you need to refine your skill set and advance your career.

But which certification should you go for? With a handful of options to choose from, and real time and money at stake, it’s important to pick the HR certification that will give you the best return on your investment for where you’re at in your career.

To that end, we’ve done a deep dive on five* major HR certifications to figure out which is the best HR certification for you—weighing factors such as cost, experience requirements, what employers are looking for, and more. Let’s get to it.

*For simplicity’s sake, we’re not including any multinational HR certifications (e.g., PHRi, GPHR), or those for specific HR functions (e.g., CPLP, APTD). These are general HR certifications for U.S.-based professionals only.

HR certifications for beginners

Associate Professional in Human Resources (aPHR

Quick info
  • Cost: $400 ($100 for the application + $300 for the exam)
  • Experience required: None
  • Job listings on Indeed mentioning aPHR at time of writing: 36

With no requirements for prior HR experience or a college degree, the aPHR certification from the HR Certification Institute (HRCI) is an enticing option for those just starting out in their HR careers. Aiming for breadth over depth, aPHR covers a wide range of core HR subjects from operations and recruiting, to compensation, employee relations, and workplace health and safety.

Should you pass the aPHR certification exam—which is 125 questions, mostly multiple-choice—your aPHR certification will last three years. During that time, you only need to get 45 recertification credits by attending approved conferences, webinars, and online courses to remain certified. Every other certification mentioned here requires 60 credits.

If there’s a downside to aPHR, it’s that it’s not much of a resume booster. Appearing in a mere 36 job openings across the U.S. at time of writing, aPHR just isn’t as highly regarded by employers as the other certifications on this list.

Bottom line: If you’re a newcomer in the field of HR, the aPHR certification offers a relatively low-commitment route to improve your skills and knowledge. Just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t help you advance your career.

 

HR certifications for mid-level professionals

Professional in Human Resources (PHR)

Quick info
  • Cost: $495 ($100 for the application + $395 for the exam)
  • Experience required (must have one of the following):

    • One year of HR experience + a graduate degree
    • Two years of HR experience + a Bachelor’s degree
    • Four years of HR experience
  • Job listings on Indeed mentioning PHR at time of writing: 4,197

The next level up from the aPHR certification (see above), the PHR certification requires a modest amount of experience and education to acquire. This makes it a good option if you’ve been in the profession for a few years already. Though the PHR exam covers core skills like employee relations similar to the aPHR exam, it also tests you on more strategic HR topics like talent planning and learning and development.

The PHR exam is 175 questions (50 more than the aPHR), and the resulting certification lasts for three years. During that time, you’ll need to earn at least 60 recertification credits by attending approved conferences, webinars, and online courses. This is pretty standard for HR certifications.

Where PHR really shines is the doors it can open for your career. Found in 4,197 job listings in the U.S. at time of writing, PHR is the top cited HR certification in job listings on our list. That being said, PHR doesn’t guarantee a larger salary: A study by PayScale found that a PHR certification resulted in the smallest pay increase of all the major HR certifications.

Bottom line: Well worth the time and cost involved, the PHR certification is a great option for HR administrators or assistants looking to take the next step in their career, or to improve their odds of getting a job elsewhere—even if the accompanying pay bump isn’t stellar.

 

SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP)

Quick info
  • Cost: $300-375 (SHRM members), $400-475 (non-SHRM members)
  • Experience required (must have one of the following):

    • Currently in an HR role + a HR-related graduate degree
    • One year of HR experience + a non-HR graduate degree
    • One year of HR experience + a HR-related Bachelor’s degree
    • Two years of HR experience + a non-HR Bachelor’s degree
    • Three years of HR experience + a HR-related program*
    • Four years of HR experience + a non-HR program*
  • Job listings on Indeed mentioning SHRM-CP at time of writing: 3,687

*Programs include: working toward a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree, some college, qualifying HR certificate program, high school diploma, or GED

Despite being the largest and most reputable HR association in the world, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is the newcomer in the HR certification space. SHRM only started offering their own HR certifications in 2014 after ending their 40+ year relationship with HRCI.

SHRM-CP and PHR (see above) are similar in a number of ways. Both are aimed at new HR professionals with some experience under their belts. Both last three years and require earning at least 60 recertification credits during that time to stay active. Similar to PHR, the SHRM-CP exam consists of 160 multiple-choice questions aimed to test your HR knowledge and see how you would respond in scenario-based situations.

And that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Whereas the PHR exam is broken up by subject area, the SHRM-CP exam is broken up by competency (Leadership, Business, and Intrapersonal). PHR is more focused on the nuts and bolts of HR, like employment law, while SHRM-CP is more focused on intangible HR skills.

Found in 3,687 job listings, SHRM-CP is highly sought after by employers, although not as much as PHR. The pay boost, according to PayScale, is similarly negligible.

Where SHRM-CP does have an edge is cost. If you’re working towards or have a HR-related college degree, you can become certified a year sooner with SHRM-CP than you can with PHR. In addition, if you’re already a SHRM member and take advantage of early-bird pricing, you can become certified for just $300—almost $200 less than the cost for PHR.

Bottom line: With the right degree or a SHRM membership, SHRM-CP carries distinct advantages if you’re strapped for money or want to become certified sooner in your career. Though it lacks some of the standing and prestige of PHR, it can still provide a major boost on your path to becoming a senior HR professional.

 

HR certifications for experienced professionals

Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR)

Quick info
  • Cost: $595 ($100 for the application + $495 for the exam)
  • Experience required (must have one of the following):

    • Four years of HR experience + a graduate degree
    • Five years of HR experience + a Bachelor’s degree
    • Seven years of HR experience
  • Job listings on Indeed mentioning SPHR at time of writing: 2,774

SPHR is the highest level of certification offered by HRCI for U.S.-focused professionals. Requiring at least four years of HR experience, this is a great certification option for senior HR professionals or those in HR management hoping to become a director, vice president, or even a CHRO.

Whereas PHR straddles the line between core and strategic HR subjects, SPHR is devoted entirely to strategic subjects like leadership and strategy, employee engagement, and talent planning. You’ll be tested on these subjects across 175 multiple-choice questions. Passing the SPHR exam gets you certified for three years, but you must acquire 60 recertification credits during that span—15 of which must be Business Management & Strategy credits.

Found in 2,774 U.S. job listings at time of writing, SPHR comes up in nearly 40% more openings than SHRM-SCP (see below). On top of that, SPHR was found by PayScale to offer the biggest pay bump of all the certifications listed here at 9.6%. For those reasons alone, SPHR is a clear winner.

Bottom line: If you can afford the high cost, SPHR is a must-have certification. It offers you the best opportunity to be considered for a HR leadership position and score a substantial salary increase at the same time.

 

SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP)

Quick info
  • Cost: $300-375 (SHRM members), $400-475 (non-SHRM members)
  • Experience required (must have one of the following):

    • Three years of HR experience + a HR-related graduate degree
    • Four years of HR experience + a non-HR graduate degree
    • Four years of HR experience + a HR-related Bachelor’s degree
    • Five years of HR experience + a non-HR Bachelor’s degree
    • Six years of HR experience + a HR-related program*
    • Seven years of HR experience + a non-HR program*
  • Job listings on Indeed mentioning SPHR at time of writing: 1,985

*Programs include: working toward a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree, some college, qualifying HR certificate program, high school diploma, or GED

SHRM-SCP is SHRM’s highest level of certification. Like SPHR (see above), it’s aimed at someone like an HR manager or other experienced HR professional aiming to climb the career ladder into a senior leadership position.

If you took the SHRM-CP exam (see above), the SHRM-SCP exam will be extremely familiar. It covers the same subjects across 160 multiple-choice questions, with the only noticeable difference being that SHRM-SCP is harder (the pass rate for SHRM-SCP is about 15-20% lower than that for SHRM-CP). Also like SHRM-CP, SHRM-SCP lasts three years and requires earning at least 60 recertification credits during that time to stay active.

One nice thing about SHRM-SCP is it’s the same price as SHRM-CP—making it up to 50% cheaper than SPHR. It’s also nice that you can become certified up to one year sooner in your career with SHRM-SCP with the right degree.

That’s where the advantages end sadly. Compared to SPHR, SHRM-CP appears in 40% fewer job openings and offers only a 5.7% pay boost according to PayScale (vs. 9.6% for SPHR). Though this may change as SHRM gains more certification standing in the field, right now SPHR is the clear certification winner for experienced HR professionals.

Bottom line: Though it carries significant cost savings, SHRM-SCP just doesn’t carry the career prestige that SPHR does at this time. Unless you’re already SPHR-certified and looking to round out your skill set, SHRM-SCP offers little value over the competition.

 

Conclusion: HRCI or SHRM?

HRCI or SHRM—that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? With only two major HR certification associations in existence, you’ll have to make a choice as to which association offers the best path for your needs.

In our research, we found that there are pros and cons to each option for beginner and mid-level HR professionals. Though HRCI has been around longer and carries slightly more career advantages, the SHRM certification isn’t far behind, and can be earned faster and for less money in the right circumstances. SHRM tends to cover more intangible skills than HRCI at this level too, if that’s something you’re interested in.

Once you reach the senior level though, HRCI is the clear winner. The exams cover similar territory, and the career benefits SPHR offers over SHRM-CP are too big to ignore.

Did you find this content useful?

If so, check out some of our other articles on certifications below, or head to our talent management blog for more on the latest HR trends and best practices:


Methodology

U.S. job listings were active on Indeed.com as of February 5, 2021. The search criteria used ensured job postings either mentioned the full certification name or its shortened acronym.


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About the Author

Brian Westfall

Brian Westfall

Principal Analyst @ Capterra, covering the latest in HR and recruiting software. BS in Marketing and Economics, Trinity University. Published in Forbes, SHRM, and TechRepublic. Based in Austin. I love corgis, baking, and rooting for my hometown San Antonio Spurs (Go Spurs Go!).

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