Top 5 qualifications for construction project managers

In these challenging times, many people are thinking about getting a formal qualification in Project Management – so they can better prepare themselves for an uncertain future. But, there are so many choices out there – like Diploma, RegPM, PMP, PRINCE2 or Agile.

I often get asked what qualifications are best suited for construction projects, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.

For construction PMs, I’d recommend the following qualifications in order of relevancy:

  1. Diploma or Certificate IV in Project Management (Diploma being more advanced)
  2. CPPM or CPPP, also known as RegPM (CPPM being more advanced)
  3. PMP or CAPM (PMP being more advanced)
  4. PRINCE2 Practitioner or PRINCE2 Foundation (Practitioner being more advanced)
  5. AgilePM Practitioner or AgilePM Foundation (Practitioner being more advanced)

1) Diploma or Certificate IV in Project Management

Diploma and Certificate IV qualifications are issued under the Australian Qualification Framework (AQF) policy. This means they’re nationally recognised.

I favour these qualifications because they’re “competency-based” and require practical experience, rather than just passing an exam.

Competency-based qualifications require candidates to provide documentary evidence to prove they are managing their real-world projects to best practice standards. Their evidence is then assessed by an independent assessor. To be assessed as “competent” against, say, the criteria for managing risk, candidates may choose to submit a risk register that they are using on one of their current projects.

For employers in the construction industry, competency-based qualifications carry more weight than qualifications which merely require candidates to pass an exam. At the project management level, practical experience tends to be more highly valued than academic performance.

Diploma and Certificate IV are based on the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) standard, as defined by the Project Management Institute (PMI), based in the USA. The PMBOK standard was first published in the early 1970s.

PMBOK is the most universally recognised, global project management standard for the construction industry. For example, many construction companies who develop their own internal project management processes typically base their processes on the underlying framework outlined in the PMBOK.

Diploma or Certificate IV?

To be eligible for a Diploma, candidates need to have at least 2 years’ recent experience “managing” projects. This includes experience in managing procurement (eg: engaging and managing subcontractors and suppliers), managing human resources (eg: recruiting and managing a team) and managing cost (eg: responsible for monthly cost reporting). A candidate at Diploma level is expected to be the one developing the Project Management Plan and will need to provide evidence of this.

To be eligible for a Certificate IV, candidates need to have at least 2 years’ recent experience “contributing” to the management of projects. For example, a Senior Supervisor who may not be responsible for monthly cost reporting or procurement, but is involved in managing other key areas of construction like scope, time, quality, risk and communications. A Senior Supervisor may “contribute” to the management of cost by providing input data such as timesheets and productivity metrics. A candidate at Certificate IV level is expected to have contributed to the development of the Project Management Plan and will need to provide evidence of this.

Diploma is a more advanced qualification than Certificate IV – so the assessment criteria are more detailed, and the expectation is that the candidate is actually “managing” the project. Therefore, Diploma is best suited to Project Managers. However, Engineers may also be eligible for Diploma if they can show they are “managing” a subset of the overall project. For example, managing the design phase, or managing a subcontractor’s package of work.

2) CPPM or CPPP, also known as RegPM

Certified Practicing Project Manager (CPPM) and Certified Practicing Project Practitioner (CPPP) are issued by the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM) under their RegPM Certification program. Like Diploma and Certificate IV, they are nationally recognised and are competency-based.

If you’re wondering about the acronyms, CPPM and CPPP are based on the International Competency Baseline (ICB) standard, as defined by the International Project Management Association (IPMA), based in the Netherlands. The ICB standard was first published in 1998 with CPPM corresponding to IPMA Level C, and CPPP corresponding to IMPA Level D.

CPPM is more advanced than CPPP.

The eligibility criteria for CPPM and CPPP are similar to Diploma and Certificate IV respectively (see details above).

Like Diploma and Certificate IV, CPPM and CPPP require you to provide documentary evidence of your competency, which is then assessed by an independent assessor.

From my own experience obtaining both Diploma and CPPM, I found CPPM a touch more rigorous. I’d say this is due to the AIPM being a specialist, professional organisation who hold themselves to high standards. In both cases, I found the competency-based assessment process to be an excellent learning experience. For example, my assessor had a military background and his attention to detail ensured that every single one of my PM tools reflected the best practice standards. When he didn’t approve my project risk register because I hadn’t “quantified” the risk into $, I added that column into my risk register – and have been using it ever since!

3) PMP or CAPM

Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) are issued by the Project Management Institute (PMI). These are globally recognised qualifications which are based on the PMBOK standard.

They differ from competency-based qualifications in that hard evidence from specific projects is not required. Instead, the candidate is required to pass a very challenging exam.

PMP is more advanced than CAPM.

To be eligible for PMP, candidates need to have demonstratable experience working as a project manager, complete 35 contact hours of formal project management training, and pass the PMP exam. The amount of demonstratable experience varies according to the level of education the candidate has achieved. For example, candidates with a Bachelor-level University degree need to demonstrate they have spent 4,500 hours of effort working as a project manager, over a duration of at least 3 years.

To be eligible for CAPM, candidates need to have 1,500 hours of demonstratable experience working on a project team OR complete 35 contact hours of formal project management training, and pass the CAPM exam.

The current edition of the PMBOK standard (6th Edition) also covers Agile project management.

For an employer in construction, I have always tended to favour competency-based qualifications over exam-based qualifications. However, PMP was the first project management qualification around and is still arguably the #1 favourite globally. I’d recommend PMP for those who already have a competency-based qualification, and would like to “tick all the boxes” and embellish their CV.

I would add that candidates wishing to pass the PMP or CAPM exams need to be more academically inclined. Even though I have an Engineering degree, I found the exam hard!

4) PRINCE2 Practitioner or PRINCE2 Foundation

PRINCE2 is most popular in Government, large corporate and the information technology sectors.

PRINCE2 is based on the Projects IN Controlled Environments (PRINCE) standard, as defined by the British Cabinet Office. The standard was originally contributed to by a consortium of 150 European organisations and was first published in 1996.

PRINCE2 Practitioner is more advanced than PRINCE2 Foundation.

The eligibility criteria for PRINCE2 Practitioner and PRINCE2 Foundation are less onerous than the qualifications mentioned above. For example, candidates for PRINCE2 Foundation are not formally required to have any project management experience. I think this explains their popularity. They are easier to get, but also carry less status than, say, Diploma, CPPM or PMP.

Both qualifications involve candidates attending a formal training course and passing a relatively easy exam.

In some ways PRINCE2 is simpler approach than a PMBOK-based approach, because PRINCE2 gives you a detailed set of project management processes to follow. Think of it as a recipe. If you follow the recipe, you’re probably going to get better results!

Conversely, PMBOK is an underlying framework, which means that it requires you to tailor your own “recipe” to suit the needs of your projects. This can be more work, but can lead to your project management processes being better suited to the unique needs of your projects.

I think one reason why PMBOK-based qualifications are more popular in construction is simply that PMBOK has been around for much longer than PRINCE2.

Some argue that PRINCE2 can be too simplistic for large-scale construction projects, and too onerous for small-scale construction projects. PRINCE2, being more prescriptive, can sometimes also be viewed as being less flexible.

I joke that PMBOK is America’s answer to project management standards, but the Europeans needed a different solution – so they created PRINCE2 and ICB!

5) AgilePM Practitioner or AgilePM Foundation

Agile approaches to project management are particularly popular in the information technology sector. Agile can help in fast-paced environments, where requirements are changing rapidly and the incremental cost of implementing changes is not prohibitive. For example, in the development of a mobile tablet app.

AgilePM is based on the Agile Project Framework standard, as defined by the Agile Business Consortium, based in the United Kingdom. This standard was first published in 2010.

AgilePM Practitioner is more advanced than AgilePM Foundation.

Like PRINCE2, the eligibility criteria for AgilePM are not very onerous. For example, candidates for AgilePM Foundation are not formally required to have any project management experience.

Both qualifications involve candidates attending a formal training course and passing a relatively easy exam.

Some notes on Agile

In construction, we tend to follow a traditional or “waterfall” approach to managing projects. Think sequential phases like engineer, procure, construct and commission.

In an agile approach, we combine all the steps (eg: design, develop, test, launch) into short 2 to 3 week bursts called sprints or timeboxes. For example, in the development of our mobile tablet app, we might design, develop, test and launch a small increment of the total solution within 2 weeks. At the end of the sprint, we’d then re-evaluate our priorities to determine the deliverables for the next sprint.

In certain environments, agile approaches can be more productive. I do believe that an agile approach could potentially increase productivity in the engineering phase of a construction project. However, I’ve not yet seen a successful example of this. If you know of one, please let me know!

For sceptics who argue that construction is not at all agile, agile processes can be observed within the daily operations of our “waterfall” construction projects. For example, our daily pre-start is identical to an agile “stand-up”.

So, which qualification should you look at doing?

I observe people getting into academic, bordering on religious, debates about which approach is best. PMBOK, ICB4, PRINCE2 or Agile? I can assure you they all work, if implemented properly, and can be applied to virtually any project!

However, some approaches are better suited to certain types of project. For example, PMBOK is particularly well suited to large-scale construction, whilst AgilePM is well suited to software development.

As a general rule, for construction projects globally, I’d firstly go for qualifications based on PMBOK or ICB4. If I was working in an internal IT or Corporate support role on the client side, I may look at PRINCE2. If I was working in projects involving software development, I may look at Agile.

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