Hot New Job Title: Project Manager?

By Dan Orzech

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The U.S. Department of Energy expects recruiters to come calling for its project managers.

That's because DoE has launched a $2.8 million effort to train and certify its project managers. Once certified, the federal agency will pay its 200 project managers up to 10% more, in recognition of their improved skills - and to help retain them.

"We expect they'll be a valuable commodity both to other federal agencies and to the private sector, and we don't want to lose them," says Thad Konopnicki, a deputy director of career development at the DoE.

The program is a result of shortcomings in DoE's project management practices identified by a 1999 study commissioned by Congress.

Today, after two years of development, "we think we've got one of the best project management certification programs inside or outside of government," says Konopnicki.

To develop the program, DoE looked at best practices at four other federal agencies, and six private companies.

The agency also used tests from the not-for-profit Project Management Institute, in Newtown Square, Penn., to identify areas where its project managers could use more training. While the agency's workers scored high marks in some areas, such as cost management, the testing revealed that they could use help with skills like managing contracts.

Contract management is an important area for DoE -- the agency manages the work of more than 100,000 contractors -- and "it's not something you learn in college," says Konopnicki.

So DoE began offering courses in contract management to its project managers, along with training in a number of other areas. The agency developed a curriculum of 28 courses, half of them taught in-house, and half from other organizations such as NASA, the American Management Institute and the Defense Acquisition University.

To get certified, DoE project managers must take a total of 16 of the courses, which are offered to them for free. They must also sit through a panel interview, much like the comp boards required for graduate degrees, Konopnicki says.

The certification is part of a broader effort at DoE to provide an entire career track for project managers. "We found that some project managers had to actually leave the project management field, and go into other areas like operations or a functional specialty, to get promoted," says Konopnicki.

So DoE has developed standard job descriptions for all project managers throughout the agency, which will give project managers more mobility. It has also created positions at higher grade levels.

As part of the effort, even the workers' job title has been upgraded. Project managers at DoE now go by the more impressive moniker "Project Directors."

DoE is also developing a specific career track for project managers in information technology, with a customized three-level certification program specifically for them.

?The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is requiring all agencies to have full-time project managers on their IT projects," says Konopnicki, "and those managers need to be fully qualified, which means certified. So we've developed a specific track for our IT people, and we're going to certify an additional 65 project managers for that."

A growing trend
The efforts to upgrade project management at DoE is not unique, according to John Roecker, manager of professional development programs at the Project Management Institute. The Institute has been consulting with companies like Microsoft, which didn't have a career track for project managers either, says Roecker.

Microsoft is now creating a career path specifically for project managers, says Roecker.

That seems to be a growing trend. "We've seen a lot of requests coming in for help in developing a career path for project managers," says Roecker.

As part of the software firm's plan, it has decided certify project managers in the company's professional services group using the Institute's Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.

To become a certified PMP, project managers must have at least 4,500 hours, or roughly two and a half years, of experience working as a project manager (7,500 hours for workers without a college degree). They must then pass a 4-hour test, which was created by a team of other project managers.

There are currently over 55,000 certified PMPs worldwide, in about 120 countries, according to Roecker.