Employers in the engineering sector place a heavy premium upon the demonstrable competence and experience of prospective project managers.

While certification provides benefits for both individual professionals and organisations in the architecture, engineering and construction space, qualifications remain the most tried and reliable means for project managers to prove their chops and advance their careers.

According to David Williams, general manager of Engineering Education Australia, the qualification route remains the preferred means for project managers to shore up their professional credentials, given that it attests to practical experience as opposed to just theoretical knowledge and understanding.

“Experience is the best way [to become a project manager] and the certification pathway is not about experience,” said Williams. “You can go on the certification pathway without any experience whatsoever because certification isn’t assessing your experience – it’s assessing your knowledge.

“The qualification pathway is the opposite. You cannot become qualified unless you are deemed as competent in the workplace – so it’s skill and demonstration-based.”

While Williams acknowledges the heightened understanding and knowledge that certification can confer, he believes these improvements alone are not sufficient to produce an outstanding project manager.

“There’s not doubt that certification gives the candidate lots of knowledge about methodologies and frameworks,” he said. “Doing PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, for example, provides a good understanding of the language and terminology and so on, which is a definitely helpful as a project manager.

“However, it won’t be enough. They will need to gather experience on the job, and if they want to have that experience formalized, they will need to go down the qualification path.”

Williams said members of the engineering sector have long preferred qualifications as a reliable benchmark for the skill and competence of prospective project managers.

“I would say that traditionally engineering employers have viewed qualification as more important,” he said. “We’ve decided in engineering that demonstrated competence in project management is far more important than knowledge or recall or a particular knowledge base, such as PMI, or Prince 2.

“It’s vital for the assurance of clients and employers that the individual can actually demonstrate project management skill in their context, not in an exam situation.”

A big part of the reason for the preference for qualifications over certification is the fact that the latter forms of accreditation were generally developed for knowledge-based IT skillsets as compared to more practical, real-world areas of engineering competence.

“In IT, certification is much more popular because the work is far more knowledge-based, and a lot of the project management frameworks, such as Agile and Prince 2, were born largely out of government IT projects,” said Williams. “Because engineering is such a practical discipline, however, qualifications have been traditionally the more preferred option, and are making a comeback after some employers have flirted with the idea of certification.

“I would absolutely encourage [aspiring project managers] to become qualified because they will be able to present the preferred option that the engineering profession expects, and also present the assurance that they have been assessed as competent in the workplace through the process of becoming qualified.

“They will actually learn more about how to actually do things, as opposed to just how it should be done. They’ll have theory and practice, rather than just theory.”