Photo by Lawrence Luk for ExpressWHEN THE BIOMETRIC COMPANY Thomas Gardner, 49, worked for seemed to be careening toward bankruptcy last fall, he dove for the classifieds. He figured that with 25 years of experience in project management, he could take his pick of new jobs.

But the more Gardner combed through job listings, the more three words kept popping out at him: Project Management Professional, better known as PMP. Gardner quickly deduced that companies weren’t content with candidates boasting just field experience. They wanted applicants with a credential. “I didn’t have certification, but the market was valuing that,” Gardner says.

Eager to get some bites when he sent out his resume, Gardner, who has a bachelor’s degree in business management from George Mason University, decided to take the exam that would earn him those three letters after his name. He Googled prep courses and found the PMP Certification prep course at Fairfax County Public Schools Adult and Community Education (FCPS ACE).

Instructor Jothi K. Murugan, MCA, MS, MBA, PMP, has his students view the class, which is held on five successive Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m, pretty much the same as they’d view a project. The main objective is to equip students to pass the certification exam. A timeline keeps them on track, and there are costs along the way, such as class tuition and materials. “By the time they finish the course, they’ll be fully prepared to take the exam,” Murugan says.
Photo by Lawrence Luk for ExpressProject Management is essentially the art of organizing and managing resources to complete a project within a defined scope, quality, time and cost constraints. As the art transforms more and more into a serious field of study, hiring managers are seeking proof that project managment candidates know their stuff. “We try to hire people with PMP certification,” says Peter Francisco, manager of staffing and recruiting for Mantech MBI, an IT firm based in Herndon, Va. “It’s driven by our clients. Our government client has been requesting it.”

As that credential grows in importance, project managers can expect their salaries to climb after they’ve received it. According to the PMI, PMPs earn $11,000 more than their non-credentialed counterparts. The median salary in the U.S. for PMPs was $100,000 in 2007, while those lacking those extra three letters earned only $89,000. Add 10 years of experience, and PMPs might earn as much as $117,000.

And people in the field are paying attention: As of December 2007, there were 267,637 global credential holders, compared to just 10,041 10 years ago. In the U.S., there were 135,309 credential holders by the end of 2007 (there aren’t regional numbers for 1998).

At the first FCPS ACE session, Murugan, 32, reviews the exam eligibility requirements—no point in taking the class if you can’t test when it’s done. The first is 35 hours of project management-related classroom hours. Of the 16 students who showed up, eight had to leave when they discovered that the prep course would not count toward those hours.

In addition to the 35 hours, PMP aspirants with a bachelor’s degree in project management must have three years of experience in the field, including 4,500 hours leading and directing projects. Those without a four-year college degree must have at least five years of experience in the field, including 7,500 hours leading and directing projects.

“Students are full-time project managers,” says Murugan, who has worked in project management for 10 years.

Photo by Lawrence Luk for ExpressAfter determining which students are ineligible for the course (and sending them home), Murugan talks those remaining through the application process, sending them home with instructions to apply for the exam that week. Students have a year from the date of application to sit for the exam, but Murugan recommends they take it as soon as possible so they don’t lose the “momentum they’ve gained over the last five weeks,” he says.

Students apply through the Project Management Institute —the only organization to offer the PMP credential. Headquartered in Newtown, Pa., the institute is globally recognized for providing the standards in the field. “All the Fortune 500 companies look to the PMI for the industry standard,” Murugan says.

Murugan’s sessions go into the the nuts and bolts of what it takes to organize and manage people: knowledge areas, such as how to keep costs down and quality of work up, and process groups, such as starting the project and keeping track of it. It’s all part of learning how a project is planned, executed and closed.

Each Saturday of the course, students take notes in the morning and divide into teams in the afternoon to answer questions similar to those they can expect to see on the exam. Some questions are knowledge-based, such as defining theories. Others are situational:What would you do if you discovered that the schedule for the project was unrealistic? All questions are multiple-choice.

Kathy Thomas particularly appreciated the teamwork. “I liked the interaction with the people, getting different perspectives, explaining how they arrived at the answer,” said the 50-year-old program manager for defense contractor Phoenix Inc.

Thomas decided to take the class to gain insight into her field and increase her value at work, potentially leading to more contracts for her company. “I thought it would help in my current position to have the credential,” says Thomas, who has worked in project management for 10 years. “Many companies are looking for that credential; job listings now ask about [it]. In government, if people have it, that goes a long way to securing a government contract.”

The last week of Murugan’s class, students take a mock exam that simulates the real thing — basically four hours of continuous testing. Then Murugan evaluates their competence and suggests strengths and weaknesses.

Four of the eight students passed the test within a week of finishing the course, Murugan said, and another two passed within a month. “They exactly followed the class plan and it really worked. They really felt that the structure and timeline were effective.”

Thomas passed the exam Dec. 7 and is glad she took the class. “I still had to do some prep on my own, but [the class] pointed me in the right direction for things to study.”

Gardner passed the exam Dec. 4 and credits the credential with securing him the position as management analyst with the federal contractor he’s currently awaiting security clearance for (and hence would rather not name). He says the class was helpful in readying him for the big test. “The instructor was well prepared for the items on the exam that would be emphasized,” he says.

Several D.C.-area schools offer Project Management Professional exam prep courses.

Saturdays, June 21-July 19
Marshall High School
7731 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church

» George Mason University
June 3-6, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Herndon Training Center at CIT
2214 Rock Hill Road, Suite 400, MS 2B7
Herndon, Va.

» Georgetown
May 10, 17, 31, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
3307 M St. NW

» PMI – D.C. Chapter
Saturdays, Oct. 13-Nov. 3, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
PMIWDC Members: $575; non-members: $600; full -time students: $400
AOL building, 22070 Broderick Drive Dulles, Va.

Written by Express contributor Sara Kruger
Photos by Lawrence Luk for Express