The Profession of Acquisition

By Dr. Robert F. Mortlock, Col., USA (Ret.)May 27, 2020

Maj. John Nikiforakis, assistant program manager for the Program Executive Office for Soldier’s Enhanced Night Vision Goggle-Binocular (ENVG-B), briefs 1st Infantry Division senior leaders on the ENVG-B in December at Fort Riley, Kansas. Adoption of PMI certifications would amplify the expertise of acquisition professionals in strategic planning and decision-making. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Timothy Ahearn, PEO Soldier) VIEW ORIGINAL

What’s a profession, and not just a job? Most agree that medical doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers and military officers are members of a profession. Most definitions of profession include work requiring a high level of education, specialized training or knowledge and particular skills, in order to provide a valued service to society in that field. Professions also have established technical and ethical standards that members adhere to; those standards are regularly updated through governing bodies. Some argue that society would cease to exist (or more realistically, cease to function normally) without these professions.

Elements of a profession include accredited education, the acquisition of specialized skills, certification, licensure, continuous professional development, a certified governing society and a code of ethics. For example, military officers are members of the profession of arms—warriors, held to high standards of conduct as they protect and defend the society they serve.

One of the most important results of the 1990 Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA), besides the establishment of Defense Acquisition University (DAU), was to lay the foundation for professional career fields within defense acquisition. Over the three decades since, the professionalism of the acquisition workforce has solidified and continues to improve. DOD and each service have continued to make significant investments prioritizing the education and training of acquisition workforce members.

Today, the acquisition workforce across DOD totals more than 150,000 dedicated government civilians and uniformed personnel. The establishment of the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund in 2008 to help improve and sustain the quality of the workforce demonstrates a commitment by Congress and DOD to the education and training of acquisition professionals.

Despite this progress, acquisition (specifically program management) is not considered a profession in the eyes of most outside the acquisition workforce, as is evident in senior leaders’ lack of trust and respect for acquisition professionals. Often to the detriment of long-term acquisition effectiveness, senior leaders fail to recognize the importance of advice from acquisition professionals and to capitalize on the expertise of acquisition professionals in strategic planning and decision-making. It may just take more time—more than three decades after DAWIA, in fact—to fully establish a defense acquisition profession of the same stature as the medical, legal or teaching professions.

In the meantime, I propose a major upgrade in the standards of conduct for the acquisition profession, in line with one of the key principles of recognition as a profession in society. This article focuses specifically on the certification requirements for the program management career field—both civilian and military, as with DAWIA.


The military does not establish separate professional certification requirements for its medical doctors and lawyers. Just like their counterparts practicing medicine in the civilian world, medical doctors within the military have to be board-certified. Similarly, military lawyers must pass a state bar exam to practice law. Program managers (PMs) within DOD, however, are not required to earn professional certifications in project, product, program or portfolio management.

DAU does provide outstanding training courses in program management, most of which are rooted in fundamental project management concepts. But DOD is not leveraging project management fundamentals the way industry does by requiring PMs to earn private-sector professional certifications. The credibility of the acquisition profession would benefit if DOD integrated these certifications into its training and education of the acquisition workforce.

In 2019, the Project Management Institute (PMI) turned 50. It is globally recognized as the world’s leading association for project, program and portfolio management professionals. PMI establishes standards and offers certifications in each of those three areas, based on knowledge and competency. The certifications are, in ascending order, project management professional (PMP), program management professional (PgMP) and portfolio management professional (PfMP). Over 960,000 individuals have earned the PMP certification, just over 2,700 have earned the PgMP, and a little over 760 hold the PfMP.

The Project Management Institute, recognized as the world’s leading association for project, program and portfolio management professionals, establishes standards and offers certifications in those three areas. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center) VIEW ORIGINAL

Integrating these internationally recognized designations into the existing DAWIA certification levels for the program management career field would enhance the professionalism of the acquisition workforce. PMI finds that besides the prestige factor and the associated benefits of more effective management of projects, programs and portfolios, these certifications result in increased opportunities, responsibilities and pay.

It’s important to understand how project, project management, program management and portfolio management are defined in the Project Management Body of Knowledge, the Standard for Program Management and the Standard for Portfolio Management established by PMI and endorsed by the American National Standards Institute.

project is a temporary endeavor to create a unique product, service or results, and project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to meet project requirements. At a higher level is program management—the application of knowledge, skills and principles to achieve program objectives and obtain benefits not available by managing efforts individually. At the highest level is portfolio management—the centralized management of projects, programs and operations as a group to achieve strategic objectives.

Currently, the PM career field within the acquisition profession has training, education and experience requirements for Levels I, II and III. I propose that PM Level I include earning the PMP credential, PM Level II the PgMP credential, and PM Level III the PfMP credential. The increased scope, responsibility and experience associated with project, program and portfolio management already align with DAWIA PM Levels I, II and III.


Junior acquisition workforce members earning the PM Level I credential have one year of experience with cost, schedule and performance responsibilities. They are generally working at the project level and would benefit from learning and applying project management fundamentals and earning the PMP credential. Intermediate members of the PM career field, who have at least two years of experience managing cost, schedule and performance in the PM field, would benefit from learning and applying the fundamentals of program management and earning the PgMP credential. And finally, the more seasoned members of the PM career field, who must have at least four years of experience to be PM Level III certified and usually are transitioning into portfolio management, would benefit from learning and applying the fundamentals of portfolio management and earning the PfMP credential.

The PMP, PgMP and PfMP certifications align not only with the three levels of DAWIA certifications but also with the typical DOD acquisition management hierarchy. Each of the services has program executive offices (PEOs), which already represent portfolios—groups of projects, programs or operations that are centrally managed. It’s important not only for the PEO to have the PfMP certification but also for members of the PEO staff. Furthermore, PEOs usually comprise multiple program management offices (PMOs), each led by a program manager supported by the PMO staff. The PM and PMO staff would benefit from earning the PgMP certification. Finally, the PMO may also have subordinate product offices led by a product manager and supported by project officers. The product managers and project officers would benefit from earning the PMP certification.

Integration of Project Management Institute certifications would enhance the credibility of DOD acquisition professionals. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL


The goal of acquisition is to deliver warfighter capabilities effectively and efficiently. Increasing the standards for the workforce to include private-sector professional certifications would create a cadre of acquisition warriors that the warfighter and senior DOD leaders can depend on to maintain our technological advantages on modern battlefields. Capable program management speeds the delivery of required capability to the warfighter through leadership and with competent, effective acquisition, business and technical management—resulting in increased combat effectiveness on the battlefield.

Currently, leaders do not value the input of acquisition professionals mostly because they don’t recognize acquisition as a profession. The adoption of PMP, PgMP and PfMP credentials into DAWIA certification requirements would help build trust between acquisition professionals and senior leaders and warfighters. Then maybe DOD senior leaders outside the acquisition workforce will recognize the important contributions that acquisition professionals make to deliver capabilities to the warfighter.

ROBERT F. MORTLOCK, Ph.D., COL, USA (Ret.) managed defense systems development and acquisition efforts for the last 15 of his 27 years in the U.S. Army. He’s now a professor of the practice, teaching defense acquisition and program management in the Graduate School of Defense Management at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, an MBA from Webster University, an M.S. in national resource strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and a B.S. in chemical engineering from Lehigh University. He holds DAWIA Level III certifications in program management, test and evaluation, and engineering, as well as the Project Management Professional and Program Management Professional credentials.

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