Which project management certification is best?

By on 07 Dec 2018

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The question of which project management certification is best is one which comes up time and again. Most people undertake professional project management certification because they think it will help their career.

This article explores the main options to consider when choosing to get a professional project management qualification.

Click one of the links below to jump straight to a section or read the whole article.

Project management qualifications and employers
Certification is not competence
Project management certification options
PRINCE2
IPMA
APM
PMI
Choosing the right certification
Conclusion

Project management qualifications and employers

compare project management certifications

Just like in any other profession, employers like to hire candidates with experience. If you can’t show that you have the necessary experience, then it is unlikely that you will land the job.

However, when more than one candidate shows the necessary experience, other factors come into play, which can help the employer choose the right candidate for the role. One of these is evidence of professional qualifications.

If you are applying for a project manager role then gaining project management certification shows the employer your understanding and knowledge of project management principles and methods, and can, in some cases, also show your ability to apply those methods.

Gaining such certification also shows employers your commitment to continuing professional development and your desire to improve your skillset. These are important attributes for any employee to have.

There is also evidence to show that project management certifications can lead to greater earnings. This is because they help to differentiate you in the marketplace and can give you a competitive advantage compared with others in the jobs market.

All other things being equal, a resume showing project management certification is going to be placed higher on the pile than a similar one without a recognized project management qualification.

Certification is not competence

There are 2 broad categories of project management certification which we shall explore in this article: knowledge-based and competency-based.

Knowledge-based qualifications

Knowledge-based qualifications require a candidate to show their knowledge of project management - mainly by passing the requisite examinations. Knowledge-based qualifications are better suited for people trying to gain entry to the project management profession because they do not require the candidate to show a certain level of prior project management experience.

Gaining certification however via one of the knowledge-based examinations should not be confused with being competent in project management. It only shows your knowledge of a project management methodology or project management knowledge areas.

Competency-based qualifications

Competency-based qualifications require a candidate to show their abilities in a broad range of project management competencies. This is usually achieved by an assessment of a candidate when working alone, when working in groups and when interviewed by a panel of assessors.

Usually, the competency-based qualifications are viewed as higher-level qualifications than knowledge-based ones, because they often require evidence of prior project management experience. They are more suited to project professionals already working within the project management field and want to advance their career and benchmark their skills against others in the profession.

Project management certification options

There are essentially 3 main choices when considering professional project management certification. Depending upon whether you are based in the UK, Europe or the rest of the world will, to a large extent, dictate the qualifications which you choose to undertake.

AXELOS (PRINCE2®) qualifications

In the UK, PRINCE2 is without a doubt, the main project management certification. PRINCE2, is owned by AXELOS which is a joint venture between the UK Cabinet Office (a part of the UK government) and Capita plc, a large private sector organization.

PRINCE2 was developed in the UK as a government standard for managing I.T. projects. It has now become a de facto standard for project management across many industries in the UK. It is also widely used across Australia and Europe.

The huge recent popularity of PRINCE2 can be seen by the fact that in recent years PRINCE2 examinations have been sat in more than 120 countries, supported by accredited training organizations in more than 60 countries.

PRINCE2 is seen as one of the essential tools in any project manager’s toolkit. It is a methodology which can help any organization better control its projects.

PRINCE2 is used by many organizations throughout the world including BP, Barclays Bank, DHL, Rolls Royce, Phillips, Siemens, Sun Microsystems to name just a few. The United Nations Development Programme has adopted PRINCE2 and is currently rolling out PRINCE2 training to countries around the world.

Since PRINCE2 was launched in 1996, more than 1.2 million PRINCE2 examinations have been sat worldwide. During 2013, more PRINCE2 exams (160,000) were sat than in any previous year – a 9% increase over 2012. The exam rate grew quickly in several countries as PRINCE2 continued its remarkable growth across the globe. PRINCE2 exams in 2013 grew significantly in China (107%), India (97%), Italy (73%), and South Africa (29%) and Germany (19%).

One factor helping the growth of PRINCE2 is that there is now no need for candidates to travel to a public examination centre since both examinations can be taken online using a webcam.

If you are based in the UK or Europe and/or will work for UK or European companies, then PRINCE2 is the certification which employers are most familiar with, and hence the reason why they often seek candidates with these qualifications.

The syllabus for the PRINCE2 examinations is based upon Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2® 2017 Edition which is available in English as a book and in PDF format. 

One of the main attractions for people wanting to move into project management for the first time, is that PRINCE2 certification is available without needing to prove previous project management experience. This sets PRINCE2 apart from many other project management certifications which do require experience.

PRINCE2 Foundation

The Foundation examination consists of a one-hour multiple choice exam and approximately 97% of candidates pass this exam in the UK. PRINCE2 Foundation confirms that a candidate understands the PRINCE2 methodology.

Project administrators, team leaders and support staff, or people who work on projects should consider taking the Foundation exam.

Candidates usually attend a training course to prepare themselves for the examination. Training often lasts between 2-3 days, with the examination on the last day. Alternatively, candidates can self-study using an elearning package, which can take up to 20 hours to complete.

Examinations are currently available in English, but Dutch, German, Polish, French, Danish, Norwegian and Italian translations are currently in development. (Note: other languages are available for exams based upon 2009 syllabus).

PRINCE2 Practitioner

The Practitioner level indicates that you understand how PRINCE2 can be applied on a non-complex project.

The Practitioner level is an open book 2.5-hour exam meaning that candidates can use their PRINCE2 manuals during the exam. Candidates must answer questions based on a project scenario. Candidates must score at least 38 marks out of 68 (55%) in order to gain certification.

Existing project managers or people wanting to move into project management should consider taking the Practitioner exam.

Candidates usually attend a training course to prepare themselves for the examination. Training often lasts between 2-3 days if a candidate has already passed the Foundation exam with the examination on the last day. Most candidates who take the Practitioner exam usually attend a 4 or 5 day course which combines both Foundation and Practitioner parts, and therefore includes 2 exams.

Alternatively, candidates can self-study for the Practitioner exam using an elearning package, which can take up to 20 hours to complete.

PRINCE2 Practitioner pre-requisites include any of the following:

  • AXELOS (PRINCE2)
    • PRINCE2 Foundation
  • International Project Management Association (IPMA)
    • IPMA Level A® (Certified Projects Director)
    • IPMA Level B® (Certified Senior Project Manager)
    • IPMA Level C® (Certified Project Manager)
    • IPMA Level D® (Certified Project Management Associate)
  • Project Management Institute (PMI®)
    • Project Management Professional (PMP®)
    • Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM®)

Examinations are currently available in English, but Dutch, German, Polish, French, Danish, Norwegian and Italian translations are currently in development. (Note: other languages are available for exams based upon 2009 syllabus).

Whilst PRINCE2 Practitioner certificates themselves do not expire, Registered PRINCE2 Practitioner status does expire.

This happens after 3 years and there are two options to renew the status. An individual can either simply take the PRINCE2 Practitioner exam again after 3 years, or, they can sign up for AXELOS Membership and begin to log CPD points.

If an individual chooses the CPD route, a total of 20 CPD points must be logged per year to keep PRINCE2 Practitioner status up-to-date. These points are accumulated through professional activities, such as using PRINCE2 at work, mentoring staff, attending courses or things such as contributing to industry events or online forums. The great benefit of the CPD route is that you will not have to take the PRINCE2 Practitioner exam again. 

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International Project Management Association (IPMA®) qualifications

The IPMA® is a Federation of over 55 Member Associations (MAs), each representing one country. The MAs develop project management competencies in their geographic areas of influence.

The IPMA has developed a four-level certification program each with their own distinctive capabilities, including:

  • IPMA Level A: Certified Projects Director manages complex project portfolios and programmes.
  • IPMA Level B: Certified Senior Project Manager manages complex projects. Minimum five years of experience.
  • IPMA Level C: Certified Project Manager manages projects of moderate complexity. Minimum three years of experience.
  • IPMA Level D: Certified Project Management Associate applies project management knowledge when working on projects.

Each MA may give different names to each level, but the competencies remain the same. Candidates always have the choice of doing the certification in their own language or in English.

Since 2004, the IPMA has certified more than 150,000 project managers via its MAs in over 50 countries across the globe. One of the largest MAs is the UK-based Association for Project Management (APM) which is covered in the next section.

Association for Project Management (APM) qualifications

The UK-based Association for Project Management (APM) is an educational charity and the largest independent professional body of its kind in Europe. The APM has over 13,500 individual and 300 corporate members throughout the UK and abroad. In 2017, APM was awarded a Royal Charter as part of its strategy to raise awareness and standards in the profession.

The APM offer 5 levels of certification, 2 of which are explained below.

It’s difficult to provide exact numbers on the quantity of examinations taken, but if the IPMA has certified around 150,000 since 2004, then the number certified by the APM in the UK is substantially less than the number certified in PRINCE2.

The first 2 APM qualifications will now be explained.

Project Fundamentals Qualification (PFQ)

The entry-level Project Fundamentals Qualification (PFQ) has been designed for people looking to start a career in project management or those wanting to understand the principles of project management. No prior knowledge or experience is required for this certificate.

The APM has worked with the UK Government's Department for Education and Skills to develop this certificate. The syllabus for this certificate is based upon the APM Body of Knowledge 6th Edition (the APM BoK). The PFQ qualification used to be known as the Introductory Certificate.

This Certificate requires a one-hour multiple choice exam consisting of 60 questions. The pass mark is 36 marks (60%). The examination can be taken online using a webcam.

Candidates can either attend a 2-day training course to prepare themselves for the examination or self-study using online training.

This certificate is only available in English. PFQ does not equate to any of the IPMA Levels.

Project Management Qualification (PMQ)

The next level Project Management Qualification (PMQ) is also a knowledge-based qualification which enables a candidate to show a broader knowledge of project management elements. PMQ equates to IPMA Level D.

PMQ assesses the candidate's knowledge in all areas of project management, from strategic and commercial implications, to the technical, organisational, and people management skills required to participate effectively within a project team. The syllabus for this certificate is based upon the APM Body of Knowledge 6th Edition. PMQ used to be known as APMP.

This qualification involves either a 3-hour examination paper consisting of 10 out of 16 questions or, for PRINCE2 Practitioners a 2- hour exam consisting of 6 out of 10 questions. The pass mark in both cases is 55%.

This certificate is for those people wanting to understand project management to achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness. Typically, candidates already have some existing project management experience, although this is not mandatory.

This certificate is only available in English.

APM Practitioner Qualification

This residential assessment is delivered through the APM’s association with the International Project Management Association. The Practitioner qualification equates to IPMA Level C.

The qualification is for people with a minimum of three years’ experience in managing non-complex projects. Candidates must demonstrate their ability to manage non-complex projects or run a key control function of a large-scale project. In addition, candidates must be able to satisfy one of the following:

  • Either have passed the APMP Qualification; or
  • Can demonstrate a good familiarity with the APM Body of Knowledge with evidence of relevant continuing professional development.

The assessment is comprised of 3 elements:

  • Individual work – where the candidate answers written questions based on a case study and one question regarding current issues in project management.
  • Group work – where the candidates work in small groups and are observed discussing and solving problems related to the case study.
  • Interview – where the candidates are interviewed by a team of assessors.

Successful candidates are eligible to become full members of APM and can use MAPM after their name.

This assessment is only available in English.

Project Management Institute (PMI) qualifications

The most popular project management professional certificate in the USA, Canada and also in parts of Asia and Africa is offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI). The PMI offers two levels of certification which include examinations. Both examinations must be taken at a Prometric test centre which are located in many countries around the world. These examinations however cannot be taken online using a webcam.

The examinations are only available in English, but there are language aids available in Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Simplified), French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Turkish.

Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)

The CAPM is an entry-level qualification designed for members of project teams and new project managers or those working in project support. The CAPM demonstrates a clear knowledge of project management processes and terminology as defined within A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), 6th Edition. (Note: the PMBOK Guide is very similar to the APM’s BoK, covering many of the same knowledge areas and techniques).

The qualification is a closed-book 3 hour exam comprising of 150 questions. Of these, 15 are test questions which do not carry a mark. They are used to trial out future exam questions. The pass mark is not disclosed by the PMI.

CAPM also requires the following:

  • A secondary degree (high school diploma or global equivalent); and
  • At least 1,500 hours of experience on a project team, or 23 hours of project management education prior to sitting the exam.

To maintain your CAPM credential, you will need to re-sit the CAPM examination within 5 years.

As of November 2013, there were about 24,000 active CAPM certified individuals worldwide.

Candidates can either self-study using the PMBOK Guide, use elearning material or attend a 3 day training course. The exam is taken online at a Prometric test centre.

Project Management Professional (PMP)

The Project Management Professional (PMP) certificate demonstrates that you have the experience, education and competency to lead and direct projects. It that regard, it’s both a knowledge-based and competency-based qualification.

To qualify, candidates must have:

  • A secondary degree (high school diploma, associate degree, or the global equivalent) with a minimum of five years of project management experience, with 7,500 hours leading and directing projects and 35 hours of project management education; or,
  • A four-year degree (bachelor’s degree or the global equivalent) and at least three years of project management experience, with a minimum of 4,500 hours leading and directing projects and 35 hours of project management education.

The PMP closed-book exam tests candidates’ application of project management knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques. The exam is a 4-hour multiple choice exam consisting of 200 questions. Of these, 25 are pretest questions which do not carry a mark. They are used to trial out future exam questions. The pass mark is not disclosed by the PMI.

By the end of 2013, there were more than 600,000 active PMP certified individuals.

Candidates can either self-study using the PMBOK Guide, use elearning material or attend a training course, usually lasting anywhere between 2 and 5 days. The exam is taken online at a Prometric test centre.

Choosing the right certification

There are 2 main factors to consider when choosing a project management qualification: your motivation for gaining certification and your preferred employment location.

Your motivation

There are often 2 main reasons someone chooses to gain a professional project management qualification. Either they want to learn about project management, or they want a qualification to help advance their career.

If the goal is to learn about project management, then it’s better to seek a qualification which has no pre-requisites. Any of the following would fit: PRINCE2 Foundation, APM PFQ or PMI CAPM. If the goal is to help advance a career, then the preferred employment location is a determining factor.

Employment location

The table below shows the locations where each certificate is demanded by employers. As you can see, PRINCE2 is the preferred certification in the UK and Europe. For the rest of the world the choice is PMI certification.

recommended-project-management-certification-by-region

Choosing multiple certifications

If the goal of a candidate is to seek knowledge about project management then it’s also important to realize that certifications based upon a body of knowledge, or BoK (e.g. PMI and APM) cover a huge range of project management methods, tools and techniques.

However, the BoKs themselves are not methodologies. Essentially, for practicing project managers, knowing a methodology and a body of knowledge is regarded as the ultimate goal of knowledge-based qualifications. It’s the equivalent of a project manager having two toolkits to use, not just one.

To read more about the differences between a methodology and a BoK in further detail read the article which compares PRINCE2 and the PMBoK.

Conclusions

Where ever you are based in the world, there are also some other factors to consider such as:

  • the language of the exam and manual
  • the ability to take exams online
  • other pre-conditions for certification e.g. years of experience of project management

Not every project management qualification covers everything there is to know about project management. The Global Alliance for the Project Professions [6] provides a very useful comparison of the PMBOK, PRINCE2 and the IPMA competency framework and the coverage of each one against a standard set of criteria.

The PMBOK Guide is a description of the many knowledge areas and techniques which are useful for project managers. The PMBOK Guide describes the “How”. PRINCE2 is a process-based model which describes “what” needs to be done, “when” and by “whom” (including many more roles than those described in the PMBOK). In this regard, the qualifications based upon the PMBOK Guide are complimentary to PRINCE2.

Depending upon which region you are based, aim first for the certification which is most popular. After gaining that, aim for a second certification which compliments the first one. That way, you can sure of having all the knowledge and tools which any accomplished project manager needs in their toolkit.

This means that in the UK, I would go the PRINCE2 route first, followed by the APM PMQ. If I were in Europe, I would go the PRINCE2 route first and then aim either for a level C IPMA qualification if there is a national association in my country, or a PMI qualification if there isn’t.

In Australia I would do PRINCE2 first followed either by IPMA or PMI. In the rest of the world I would go the PMI route first and then the PRINCE2 route.

Whichever project management certification route you finally decide upon, I hope this article has been useful to you. If you’ve found it useful then please help others to benefit from this by sharing it on social media and linking to it from your web site or blog. If you have any suggestions for improvements or feel anything is missing, then please email me.

References

[1] SmartSheet. (2017). 2018 Comparison of PMP Salary Sources and Surveys. Available at: https://www.smartsheet.com/2017-comparison-pmp-salary-sources-and-surveys. Last accessed: 29 Nov 2018.

[2] Data from The APM Group marketing reports 2013. Note: Until 2014, The APM Group was the PRINCE2 accreditation body.

[3] APM Qualifications and training. (2018). Available from: https://www.apm.org.uk/qualifications-and-training/. Last accessed: 29 Nov 2018.

[4] Data from PMI web site. Available from: https://www.pmi.org/. Last accessed 07 Dec 2018.

[5] Become Recognised as a Professional – Certification. (2018). Available from: https://www.ipma.world/individuals/certification/. Last accessed: 29 Nov 2018.

[6] Global Alliance for Project Performance Standards. (2018). Comparison of PM Standards and Assessments. Available at: https://globalpmstandards.org/tools/comparison-of-global-standards/. Last accessed: 29 Nov 2018.

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