Is a PMP right for me?

By Alex Mayer 

Spring has come and gone, and with it, a new crop of university graduates ready to make their mark in public health. They are the best of us yet: they have the latest subject-matter knowledge and technologies at their fingertips; they are more idealistic, progressive, and ‘woke’; And by the time they fully absorb the gut-punch of contemporary job-seeking – consider that 41% of them will require one full year to land their first job – they will also probably the most spiritually resilient among us, too.

Entering the workforce has been a particularly ruthless rite of passage for the Millennial generation, and public health grads have been no exception. To position ourselves well, we’ve needed to have a keen sense of what is going to add value to our prospective employers, and to try to intuit this *prior* to having any real-world job experience in the field. For those without a mentor to guide the way, it can be a dark and lonely road fraught with self-doubt. I know – I, too, was there not long ago.

So, if you are eager to do good health promotion work – whether at a CHC, a Health Unit, or one of the provincial Centres – let me save you some time and help direct your sails: Consider adding Project Management to your CV.

Just think about it. Project Management Professionals (PMPs) are the super-humans that multi-billion corporations count on to deliver their most critical projects on time and on budget, whether it’s overseeing the construction of a manufacturing plant or the development of a new consumer product. The stakes are high and the level of execution has to be exacting. By using a set of tools and techniques that have been refined over decades by project managers the world over, certified PMPs are able to plan and deliver large-scale, multi-year, multi-stakeholder projects with a high rate of success.

Now think back to your courses in community-based health program planning: are impactful, well-designed programs easy to design and roll out? Do you write your best thoughts and assumptions about what low-income families need, and then mobilize your team to implement all of your great ideas? No. Stakeholders need to be identified early, consulted, and brought to agreement on the framing and definition of a problem or issue. Community assets as well as needs and services gaps need to be identified. A theory of change needs to be developed, a logic model built, and actions defined that target the determinants of a health outcome at the appropriate strata of the social ecological model of health. Resources must be budgeted, a communication plan developed, an evaluation plan implemented.     

All of this – what our field, by convention, has tended to call ‘program design and implementation’ – is in fact heavy-duty project management work. By learning and applying the project management framework, you cease relying on intuition and instead gain access to a robust toolkit to manage every dimension of program implementation – cost and time budgeting, human resources planning, communication planning, quality assurance, risk management, procurements, and so on (these are just a few of the 10 Project Management ‘Knowledge Areas’). The skill of competently managing time-bound projects cuts across so many aspects of what we do in health promotion – from grant-writing, to program design, to advocacy drives – that it is difficult to imagine an instance where a knowledge of project management wouldn’t add value to your employer.

So, let’s assume I’ve convinced you. How do you go about adding ‘project management’ to your CV? The first place to start is the Project Management Institute’s website (www.pmi.org). As the certifying body and keepers of the PMBOK (that’s the ‘Project Management Body of Knowledge’), you’ll want to understand their different certifications, as well as the costs and requirements associated.

Generally, if you are a new graduate with little project work/experience under your belt, you’ll only be in a position to aim as high as the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) to start. The CAPM designation requires the documentation of 1,500 project hours – equivalent to about 214 work days – before you’re eligible to sit for the exam. However, you can do away with this requirement by taking a course online or with your local post-secondary institution as long as it provides at least 23 hours of project management education. While the CAPM is a half-step below the PMP in terms of rigour and prestige, it can and should still be viewed as a valuable stepping stone on your project management journey.

If you are a Health Promoter or Community Developer looking to shift your career into high gear however, I’d recommend aiming a bit higher. Go for the PMP, since your years of work experience will likely give you the 7,500 project hours – equivalent to just under 3 years’ experience leading projects – required to meet the PMP eligibility criteria. For the PMP, it’s also be mandatory to record 35 education hours prior to sitting for the exam.

Once you’ve decided on one of these certification levels, you will want to purchase a PMI membership – this gives you access to a free digital edition of the PMBOK (the holy bible of project management) as well as significant discounts on the exam fee and a large number of project management courses and learning resources. When weighing the different course options, keep in mind that while choosing a course isn’t trivial, the creditable instructional hours really are the most important thing, as even the best course won’t diminish your need to spend hundreds of hours of alone time with the PMBOK – getting to know it, and getting to love it in all of its dull glory.

All told, the process from start to finish will require about 6 months for the eager unemployed, and 1 well-paced year for the working professional who sacrifices a few evenings of quality Netflix time every week. Consider budgeting just over $1,000 for the process: $150 for your PMI membership, $500 for the exam fee, and $400 for a web-based prep course. While this may seem like a steep investment for new graduates currently living with parents, consider that Project Managers at Ontario hospitals currently take home between $80,000 – $105,000 annually. A CAPM or PMP alone won’t guarantee you this job out of school, but it’s worth considering the outsized impact that a $1,000 investment today will have on your short-term employability, as well as your long-term opportunities and earning potential.

In my case, the tools and techniques allowed me to overcome personal weaknesses in time and communication management. Becoming a PMP also allowed me to understand what tools and techniques I could lean on at any juncture in my project timeline to get the needed result. And ultimately, my recent job-seeking experience, now with a PMP designation listed on my CV, felt orders of magnitude easier than my first job search out of grad school.

In short, I am confident that it if your interest lies in the design and delivery of health programs that improve people’s lives, you too will benefit from better understanding the art and science of project management.

 

Alex Mayer is a 2011 MPA graduate (Health Policy) from the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies, and a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) as of December 2015. Since graduating, his work experience has included teaching Canadian Health Policy at Queen’s University (SKHS), working as a Community Health Promoter at the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit, and serving on the Board of Directors at the Ontario Public Health Association. He currently works as Health Analyst at the Centretown Community Health Centre in the Nation’s capital, where he marries his twin passions for grassroots health promotion and meaningful data analysis in overseeing the Centre’s strategic planning, quality improvement, and program evaluation activities.

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