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Best Project Management Certifications

best project management certifications
Credit: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

Project management certifications have claimed a place in every top IT certification list for years. That's because project managers are important to IT operations of all kinds. Whether you are interested in becoming an IT project manager or just want to add project management to your list of soft skills, these five leading certifications will help you add to or boost those skills and, in turn, increase your value.

If there's a single set of soft skills that's been fixed on the IT radar for the past decade or so, to the point where it's become almost as sought after and every bit as valuable as top-level credentials, it must be project management. [Interested in project management software? Check out our best picks.]

Thanks in large part to the immensely popular and widely pursued Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI), this area has become an incredibly valuable merit badge for IT professionals of all stripes. That's because it enhances and expands on the value of just about any other kind of technical credential.

Project management has everything to do with planning, scheduling, budgeting for, and then executing and reporting on projects of all shapes and sizes. In fact, anything and everything that IT does can be understood or handled as a project of some kind. It applies to one-of-a-kind activities that happen only once or very seldom (think hardware or OS upgrades, or migrating from older to newer platforms or infrastructures). Ditto for a recurring series of activities that repeat regularly (think security patches, software updates or other regular maintenance tasks). Thus, project management is incredibly important to IT operations across the board.

According to PMI's Earning Power: Project Management Salary Survey, 10th Edition, IT professionals who hold a PMP report median base annual salaries in the U.S. of almost $116,000. The top 25 percent of survey respondents report base salaries of at least $139,000. Depending on such factors as complexity and size of projects, location, fields of expertise (e.g., IT, construction or healthcare), and experience, salaries for some PMP credential holders can be much higher still.

Robert Half's Technology & IT 2018 Salary Guide lists project management as a hot certification, with salaries varying slightly by technology area. It cites a salary range of $92,750 to $156,000 for project managers in application development environments. Project managers engaged in consulting and system integration roles can expect to earn $96,000 to $162,000 nationwide. This explains nicely why PMP appears in nearly every top-10 list of popular, targeted or most desirable certifications since the early 2000s. It's no surprise that Robert Half also lists the PMP credential, along with Agile and Scrum certifications, as trending up in the IT industry.

To give you an idea of which project management credentials employers look for in prospective candidates, we conducted a quick survey on some popular job boards. Clearly, the PMP is the overall favorite and remains our No. 1 pick for must-have project management certifications. PMI's entry-level project management credential, the CAPM, also made our top five. The CSM from Scrum Alliance, along with ASQ's Certified Six Sigma Black Belt and Green Belt credentials, round out those picks.

Certification

SimplyHired

Indeed

LinkedIn Jobs

LinkUp.com

Total

CAPM (Project Management Institute)

576

703

774

309

2,362

CSM (Scrum Alliance)

3,604

4,577

5,314

2,326

15,821

CSSBB (ASQ)

1,087

1,330

1,385

760

4,562

CSSGB (ASQ)

1,251

1,466

1,486

810

5,013

PMP (Project Management Institute)

13,594

17,385

18,614

7,682

57,275

The same organization behind the PMP backs the Certified Associate in Project Management. In fact, the CAPM is properly considered a steppingstone credential for those who wish to attain PMP status by stages, rather than in a single giant leap. That's why PMI describes the CAPM as a "valuable entry-level certification for project practitioners" that is "designed for those with little or no project experience."

In fact, the PMP requires 3-5 years of documented on-the-job project management experience, depending on the educational background of each applicant. On the other hand, the CAPM requires only a high school diploma and either 1,500 hours of documented on-the-job experience (about nine months of full-time work) or 23 hours of project management classroom training prior to taking the exam.

Nor does the CAPM require continuing education (which PMI calls PDUs, or professional development units) as does the PMP (60 PDUs every three years) to maintain this credential. To recertify, CAPM holders must retake the exam once every five years.

The CAPM is one of a small set of entry-level project management certifications (including the CompTIA Project+) that IT professionals interested in project management might choose to pursue. Remember, though, that it is just a steppingstone to the PMP.

Unless you work in a large organization where a project management team is in place that includes junior as well as senior positions, the CAPM by itself is unlikely to provide a ticket to a project management job. However, it's ideal for IT professionals for whom project management is a part-time job role or who want to grow into full-time project management.

Certification name

Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)

Prerequisites/required courses

High school diploma, associate's degree or global equivalent, plus 1,500 hours of project management experience or 23 hours of project management education

Certification valid for five years; candidates must retake exam to maintain credential.

Number of exams

One (150 questions; 15 questions are unscored; three hours to complete)

Cost per exam

Computer- or paper-based exams:
PMI member: $225 (retake $150)
Nonmember: $300 (retake $200)

Exam available in online proctored or center-based test (CBT) formats.
Exam administered by Pearson VUE.

URL

www.pmi.org/Certification/Certified-Associate-in-Project-Management-CAPM.aspx

Self-study materials

PMI maintains a list of self-study materials on its exam guidance webpage, including the Exam Content Outline, sample exam questions and the CAPM Handbook.

Numerous books are available, including:

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) – Sixth Edition; Sept. 22, 2017; Project Management Institute; ISBN-10: 1628251840; ISBN-13: 978-1628251845 (available for free download to PMI members)

CAPM Exam Prep, Third Edition, by Rita Mulcahy, Sept. 2013, RMC Publications, ISBN-10: 1932735720, ISBN-13: 978-1932735727

CAPM/PMP Project Management Certification All-in-One Exam Guide, Third Edition, by Joseph Phillips, Sept. 2013, McGraw-Hill Osborne Media, ISBN-10: 0071776044, ISBN-13: 978-0071776042

CAPM/PMP Project Management Certification All-in-One Exam Guide, Fourth Edition, by Joseph Phillips; April 23, 2018; McGraw-Hill Education; ISBN-10: 1259861627; ISBN-13: 978-1259861628

 

As companies seek to deliver more for less, many adopt Agile methodologies to streamline processes, build quality into products and ensure that final builds meet customer requirements. As Agile methodologies have become more popular, it's no surprise that we see increased demand for IT practitioners qualified to manage projects in Agile environments.

While different Scrum master certifications are available, our pick is the Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) from the Scrum Alliance. This nonprofit organization encourages adoption of Scrum and Agile practices, promotes user groups and learning events, and provides resources for professional development. The organization boasts more than 450,000 certified practitioners worldwide.

The Scrum Alliance provides a support system for Scrum practitioners, including Scrum Gatherings, user groups, virtual communications, coaching, online training and much more. In addition to community and advocacy activities, the Scrum Alliance offers numerous Scrum-related certifications at the foundation, advanced, elevated (guide) and leadership levels.

  • Foundation or entry-level credentials: Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO), Certified Scrum Developer (CSD) and Certified ScrumMaster (CSM)
  • Advanced credentials: Advanced Certified ScrumMaster (A-CSM), Advanced Certified Scrum Product Owner (A-CSPO) and Certified Scrum Professional (CSP) credential. The CSP credential is currently available in two versions: Certified Scrum Professional – ScrumMaster (CSP-SM) and Certified Scrum Professional Product Owner (CSP-PO). Advanced and professional credentials for the Developer track are planned, but an availability date has not yet been announced.
  • Elevated or guide credentials: Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), Certified Team Coach (CTC) and Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC)
  • Leadership: The Scrum Alliance also offers the Certified Agile Leadership (CAL) program, a credential based on a combination of education and validated practice.

For project managers getting started as Scrum practitioners, the CSM makes an excellent entry-level credential. Not only must candidates demonstrate an understanding of Scrum principles and values, but they'll learn how to implement and apply Scrum in practice. The Scrum Alliance provides CSMs with multiple resources, plus checklists and information about the servant-leader role of the Scrum master.

Certification name

Certified ScrumMaster

Prerequisites/required courses

General familiarity with Scrum

Completion of a two-day CSM training course (price varies by training provider; candidates can expect to pay $920 to $1,295)

Note: Some training providers are affiliated with PMI; candidates may earn 14 PDUs for their PMI certification.

Number of exams

One (24 correct answers out of 35 questions required to pass)

Cost per exam

Fees for online test paid by the training provider

URL

https://www.scrumalliance.org/certifications/practitioners/certified-scrummaster-csm

Self-study materials

Scrum Alliance offers blogs, articles, reports, online learning, suggested reading, presentations, Certified ScrumMaster Learning Objectives, Scrum Foundations Learning Objectives and more.

 

Globally recognized, ASQ certifications attest to candidate expertise, mastery of industry and regulation standards, and mastery of the ASQ Body of Knowledge. Currently, ASQ offers 18 credentials, three of which specifically target project management: the Certified Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB) (expert level), the Six Sigma Green Belt (CSSGB) (professional level) and the Six Sigma Yellow Belt (CSSYB) (entry level).

The Certified Six Sigma Black Belt is ASQ's highest Six Sigma credential. The CSSBB aims at experienced practitioners who understand Six Sigma methodologies (including the DMAIC model), tools, systems and philosophies. CSSBBs can lead teams or manage team dynamics, roles and responsibilities.

The path to CSSBB certification is rigorous. In addition to passing a comprehensive exam, candidates must complete two projects that employ Six Sigma tools and processes, resulting in project improvement and a positive financial project impact. An affidavit is also required to attest to the veracity of the project. Alternatively, candidates with at least three years of experience in one or more of the Six Sigma Body of Knowledge areas need only complete one Black Belt project.

CSSBB candidates are expected to demonstrate mastery of the ASQ Black Belt Body of Knowledge, called standards:

  • Organization-wide Planning and Deployment (organization-wide considerations, leadership)
  • Organization Process Management and Measures (impact on stakeholders, benchmarking, business measures)
  • Team Management (team formation, facilitation, dynamics, training)
  • Define (voice of the customer, business case and project charter, project management tools, analytical tools)
  • Measure (process characteristics, data collection, measurement systems, basic statistics, probability, process capability)
  • Analyze (measuring and modeling relationships between variables, hypothesis testing, failure mode and effects analysis, other analysis methods)
  • Improve (design of experiments, lean methods, implementation)
  • Control (statistical process control and other controls, maintain controls, sustain improvements)
  • Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) Framework and Methodologies (common DFSS methodologies, design for DVX, robust designs)

The CSSBB is valid for three years. To recertify, candidates must earn 18 recertification units or retake the exam.

Certification name

Certified Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB)

Prerequisites/required courses

Two completed projects with signed project affidavit, or one completed project with signed affidavit plus three years of experience in one or more areas of the Six Sigma Body of Knowledge

Number of exams

One: computer-based (165 questions, 4.5 hours) or paper-based (150 questions, 4 hours)

Cost per exam

$338 members, $538 nonmembers

Exams administered by Prometric.

URL

https://asq.org/cert/six-sigma-black-belt

Self-study materials

ASQ maintains a comprehensive list of exam prep materials, including training opportunities, question banks, interactive sample exams, books and other recommended references.

 

The Certified Six Sigma Green Belt (CSSGB) by ASQ is a professional-level credential targeting experienced Six Sigma practitioners. Often, a CSSGB works under the direction of the more senior CSSBB or as an assistant. CSSGBs identify issues and drive quality and process improvements in projects.

To earn the credential, candidates should have at least three years of experience working with Six Sigma processes, systems and tools. The work experience must have been full time and compensated; an unpaid internship, for example, doesn't count. In addition, work performed must have been in at least one of the Six Sigma Green Belt Body of Knowledge competency areas.

In addition to work experience, candidates must pass an exam that tests their knowledge of the Six Sigma Green Belt Body of Knowledge. Currently, the Green Belt Body of Knowledge includes six competency areas:

  • Overview: Six Sigma and the Organization (organizational goals, lean principles, design methodologies)
  • Define Phase (project identification, customer voice, project management basics, management and planning tools, project business results, team dynamics and performance)
  • Measurement Phase (process analysis and documentation, probability and statistics, statistical distributions, data collection, measurement system analysis, process and performance capability)
  • Analyze Phase (exploratory data analysis, hypothesis testing)
  • Improve Phase (design of experiments, root cause analysis, lean tools)
  • Control Phase (statistical process control, control plan, lean tools for process control)

Overall, this is an excellent credential for those who have some experience but are not quite ready to take on the roles and responsibilities of a Black Belt.

Certification name

Certified Six Sigma Green Belt (CSSGB)

Prerequisites/required courses

Three years of experience in one or more of the Six Sigma Green Belt Body of Knowledge areas

Experience must be a full-time paid position (internships do not meet the experience requirement)

Number of exams

One: computer-based (110 questions, 4.5 hours) or paper-based (100 questions, 4 hours)

Cost per exam

$288 members, $438 nonmembers; retakes cost $238

Exams administered by Prometric.

URL

https://asq.org/cert/six-sigma-green-belt

Self-study materials

ASQ maintains a comprehensive list of exam prep materials, including training opportunities, question banks, interactive sample exams, books and other recommended references.

 

The Project Management Institute (PMI) not only stands behind its Project Management Professional certification, it works with academia and training companies to ensure proper coverage and currency in the various curricula that support this and other PMI credentials. Boasting more than 500,000 global members and 750,000 PMP certified professionals around the world, PMI's PMP remains one of the most prestigious project management credentials available. (Note: The PMP's precursor, the CAPM, is covered in an earlier section of this article.)

That's why you can obtain college- and university-based PMP training from so many institutions. It's also why you may sometimes find PMP coverage integrated into certain degree programs (often at the master's degree level).

The PMP credential is coveted by employers seeking the most highly skilled project management professionals. Developed by project managers, the PMP certification is the highest level offered in PMI certifications. It is designed to ensure that credential holders possess the skills and qualifications necessary to successfully manage all phases of a project, including initiating, planning, scheduling, controlling and monitoring, and closing out the project.

PMP certified projects managers are also well versed and skilled in managing all aspects of the triple constraints – time, cost and scope. Employers depend on the skills of PMP professionals to manage budgets, track costs, manage scope creep, identify how changes to the triple constraints may introduce risk into the project, and minimize such risk to protect the project investment.

The standards for PMP certification are rigorous. In addition to passing a comprehensive exam, credential holders must first demonstrate and certify that they have the skills and education necessary to succeed in the project management field. Credential seekers should be ready to provide documentation for items such as education, projects worked on and hours spent in each of the five project management stages – initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing out the project.

While it's difficult to achieve, the rewards for PMP credential holders can be significant. According to PMI's Earning Power: Project Management Salary Survey, 10th Edition, PMPs in the U.S. earn an average of 23 percent more than their non-credentialed counterparts. The survey reports median salaries of PMPs in the United States at $115,000, as opposed to $92,000 for non-PMP certified project managers.

For those interested in program management or wishing to specialize in a project management area, PMI offers several interesting additional credentials:

The PMP remains a nonpareil certification for IT and other professionals whose responsibilities encompass project management. It is the standard against which all other project management credentials are judged.

It should be noted that, after meeting the prerequisites, candidates are required to pass a rigorous exam. PMI rolled out a new exam in early 2018, so credential seekers should ensure their training activities and exam prep materials are in sync with the new exam objectives. Candidates should check frequently with PMI for news on the latest exam update.

Certification name

Project Management Professional (PMP)

Prerequisites/required Courses

Required courses: None

Prerequisite skills:
Four-year degree, 4,500 hours in leading and directing projects, and 35 hours of project management education
OR
Secondary degree (high school diploma, associate's degree or equivalent), 7,500 hours leading and directing projects, and 35 hours of project management education

Note: Credential holders must earn 60 professional development units (PDUs) per each three-year cycle to maintain certification.

Number of exams

One (200 questions, 4 hours)

Cost per exam

Paper* and computer-based exams:
PMI member: $405 (retake $275)
Nonmember: $555 (retake $375)

*Paper-based exam only available if candidates lives more than 150 miles from testing center or if testing center is not available in the country of residence and travel would provide an undue burden.

Exam administered by Prometric. Eligibility ID from PMI required to register.

URL

www.pmi.org/Certification/Project-Management-Professional-PMP.aspx

Self-study materials

PMI maintains a list of training resources on the PMP exam guidance webpage, including links to sample questions, the PMP Exam Content Outline and the PMP Handbook. Additional training materials (quizzes, publications, books, practice guides and more) are available from the PMI Store.

Numerous books are available, including:

Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) – Sixth Edition; Sept. 22, 2017; Project Management Institute; ISBN-10: 1628251840; ISBN-13: 978-1628251845 (available for free download to PMI members)

PMP Exam Prep: Accelerated Learning to Pass the Project Management Professional (PMP) Exam, Ninth Edition, by Rita Mulcahy; Feb. 1, 2018; RMC Publications Inc.; ISBN-10: 1943704040; ISBN-13: 978-143704040

CAPM/PMP Project Management Certification All-in-One Exam Guide, Fourth Edition, by Joseph Phillips; April 23, 2018; McGraw-Hill Education; ISBN-10: 1259861627; ISBN-13: 978-1259861628

Practice exams:
PMP Exam Practice Test and Study Guide, Ninth Edition, by J. LeRoy Ward and Ginger Levin; June 28, 2018; Auerbach Publications, ISBN-10: 1138440299; ISBN-13: 978-1138440299

 

Project management is truly a white-hot area for both certification seekers and employers. Several other project management certifications are available, for general IT project management as well as software development project management.

Honorable mention goes to the Global Association for Quality Management (GAQM) project management certifications, such as the Professional in Project Management, Associate in Project Management and Certified Project Director. The Prince2 Foundation and Practitioner qualifications (featured in the 2017 top-five list) are also excellent credentials and worth honorable mention.

While it didn't make the top five for 2018, the CompTIA Project+ credential remains a well-known entry-level project management certification for those starting their project management careers. ASQ's Certified Six Sigma Yellow Belt (CSSYB) is another entry-level credential worth exploring, particularly if you're interested in eventually moving up to the more senior Green and Black Belt credentials.

Most graduate business, management and management information systems (MIS) programs offer project management training to students, and some offer certificate programs outside the project management organizations as well.

You'll also find training and occasional certification around various project management tool sets. For example, some Microsoft Learning Partners offer courses on Microsoft Project, and you can find a dizzying array of project management packages on Wikipedia's comparison of project management software page.

The CAPM and Project+ remain the best-known entry-level project management certifications, with the PMP as the primary professional target and capstone for would-be professional IT project managers. Don't forget to consider PMI's related certifications as well. For project managers seeking entry into the realm of Scrum, the CSM is the best entry-level cert for Scrum practitioners.