Certification vs. License, Which Is Better?

Many years ago I wrote an article for a local newsletter very similar to this about the difference between certifications and experience. In that article I discussed the differences between the two; in this article, I want to discuss the difference between achieving a certification and the requirements behind a license.

IAEI Certification

IAEI has a certification program for Certified Electrical Inspector – Master or Residential. To achieve the certification as a Residential Electrical Inspector under the IAEI program one must possess a high school diploma or a general education diploma (GED) plus:

  • Completion of registered electrical apprenticeship training program, or
  • Associate degree in electrical construction technology (or equivalent), or
  • Journeyman electrician (or equivalent) or master electrician, or
  • BS in electrical engineering or PE in electrical engineering, or
  • 4,000 hours as an electrician, or
  • 2,000 hours as an electrical inspector.

To achieve the certification as a Master Electrical Inspector the program eligibility requirements are the same as those for a Residential Inspector with the exception of the following changes:

  • 8,000 hours as an electrician, or
  • 4,000 hours as an electrical inspector.

As you can see there is a requirement for experience built into the program, eliminating the real estate agent who thought it was a good idea. But what is the true difference between certifications and licensing?

NFPA Certification

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has a certification process as well. To be eligible to take the Certified Fire Protection Specialist examination, a candidate must demonstrate on the application that he or she meets one of the following criteria:

  • Bachelor’s degree in engineering, technology, or other related discipline from an accredited college or university, plus two years of verifiable work experience dedicated to curtailing fire loss, both physical and financial. Copies of college diploma or transcript and resume are required.
  • Associate’s degree in engineering, technology or other related discipline from an accredited college or university, plus four years of verifiable work experience dedicated to curtailing fire loss, both physical and financial.
  • High school diploma + 6 years of verifiable work experience dedicated to curtailing fire loss, both physical and financial.

As you can see NFPA has a requirement for experience, even though it is not a license. Verifiable work experience is to certify that only those people experienced in that field obtain the certification. In the past I have spoken with real estate agents who thought it would be a good idea to get a certification as a Certified Building Official (CBO) so they would appear more qualified in the area of house construction. This is not what certifications are about. I know individuals today who are inspectors with certifications and yet have no real world field experience, and it shows in their interpretations and enforcement of the code. They are at best good test takers.

ICC Certification

Is an International Code Council certification the same as a license? According to the ICC website, a license is a permit to work in a particular occupation, issued as a result of state or local legislation. International Code Council certifications are voluntary certifications. Some jurisdictions require certification in their administrative regulations or as a requirement to retain employment. The eligibility criteria for taking an ICC exam to become certified is to simply determine the area in which one wishes to become certified, register for the exam and sit for and pass the exam. No requirements are built in for experience such as would be for a license, such as for a master electrician’s license in the state of Maryland, which requires seven years of experience under the direction and control of a master electrician before sitting for the licensing examination


According to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, a license is a verb, license or grant licence means to give permission. The noun license (American English) or licence (Indian English, Bristish English, Canadian English, Australian English) refers to that permission as well as to the document recording that permission.
A license may be granted by a party (licensor/state) to another party (licensee/license holder) as an element of an agreement between those parties. A shorthand definition of a license is “an authorization (by the licensor) to use the licensed material (by the licensee).”

In particular, a license may be issued by authorities or AHJs to allow an activity that would otherwise be forbidden. It may require paying a fee and/or proving a capability. The requirement may also serve to keep the authorities informed on a type of activity, and to give them the opportunity to set conditions and limitations. To retain such a license may also require continuing education to satisfy the AHJ.

Certifications are earned from a professional society or from an IT vendor (e.g., Microsoft, Cisco, etc.). In general, certifications must be renewed periodically, or may be valid for a specific period of time (e.g., the lifetime of the product upon which the individual is certified). As a part of a complete renewal of an individual’s certification, it is common for the individual to show evidence of continued learning — often termed coontinuing education — or earning continuing education units (CEUs).

Certification vs. Licensure

So it would appear a certification and licensure differs only in terms of legal status. A license is a grant of permission from a statutory body for an individual to perform work in an approved category of work (electrician, plumber, builder, etc.), while a certification is the credentialing of an individual for a particular discipline that is portable, i.e., across municipal, county or state lines. Certification provides an impartial, third-party endorsement of an individual’s professional knowledge with a particular system or material, i.e., using a code book, etc.

The real difference appears to be what pre-experience requirements a credentialing agency places on the requirements for certification. Placing experience requirements on those who seek certifications would provide that only those with experience would be permitted to sit for the exams. In addition, the local municipalities would be getting truly qualified individuals, eliminating former janitors, police officers and salesmen from working in the field of inspections. What happens when a “certified” inspector is inspecting the electrical system in a hospital and is not familiar with the code or the requirements under Article 517 or NFPA 99? What if the plans examiner on that same hospital has no experience, however, is “certified” to conduct plans examinations? What have we done for the public safety, health and welfare?

This may sound strange from an inspector who has over 32 professional certifications; however, I have the experience and time in the field behind each one. In addition, I have licenses from the states I work in, including a master electrical inspector’s license from the state of Maryland. I have grown concerned over the years with individuals I have seen take an exam, pass it, and suddenly are “experts” in the field due to a certification that has no experience requirements attached. I firmly believe a certification is an excellent method for establishing one’s ability to use and interpret the code; however, it should never be used in place of experience!

So I ask you, who would you rather have, an inspector with years of experience, or the inspector who passes a certification exam but was a janitor, police officer or salesman in a former life?


ICCsafe.org, NFPA.org, IAEI.org and Wikipedia website.

Michael Savage, Sr.
Michael L. Savage, Sr., MCP, CBO, CFPS, CEI-M – is the Director of Building Safety for Marion County, Florida. He has been a plans examiner, a combination inspector, a chief inspector, a chief building official. Mr. Savage also holds a degree in Construction Management, and he holds 42 International Code Council certifications, including Master Code Professional and Certified Building Official. In addition, he is a NFPA Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFPS) and IAEI Certified Electrical Inspector - Master. Mr. Savage is a licensed/certified Building Code Administrator (BCA) in the State of Florida. Mr. Savage was elected to the ICC Board of Directors in October 2019.