Open roads



An innovative online program ensured project management training at the California Department of Transportation, long after the funding vanished.


IN A STATE WHERE TRAINING DOLLARS HAVE ACHIEVED ENDANGERED SPECIES STATUS, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), Sacramento, Calif., USA, managed to keep project education alive.

img A capital project skills development plan was approved in the 2000/2001 fiscal year, when the Division of Project Management needed to deliver a variety of project management courses to a large staff dispersed throughout the state. While Caltrans long has embraced the vendor-led classroom-style training format, Terry Murphy, PMP, manager of Caltrans project management training statewide, wanted a more innovative, cost-effective solution.

Terry Murphy, PMP, Manager of Caltrans project management training statewide, Sacramento, Calif., USA, and Jenni Helfrich, Senior Program Manager, California State University, Sacramento, College of Continuing Education, USA

Terry Murphy, PMP, Manager of Caltrans project management training statewide, Sacramento, Calif., USA, and Jenni Helfrich, Senior Program Manager, California State University, Sacramento, College of Continuing Education, USA



img The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) needed cost-effective, consistent and convenient training for a large number of geographically dispersed people.

img Caltrans partnered with a university to customize content and share the development and delivery responsibilities.

img Online training kept programs alive when funding decreased.

img The agency had to deal with a significant cultural shift.

img Assessments showed students gained the desired knowledge from the courses.

“I knew that we only had funding for three years and that everything beyond that was a gray area, and I knew that we wanted to build survivable training that could live beyond the funding to the greatest extent possible,” Murphy says. “The vendor training was good, and we liked it. But it was all live, it was expensive, and it required travel for 100 percent of the students.”

After investigating various alternatives, the Division of Project Management turned its attention to a blended delivery solution that moved the majority of the training content into online courses and utilized classroom training only for courses that did not translate well into a Web-based environment.

Project Partners

img Knowing that the division lacked the knowledge and technical infrastructure to implement this vision, Murphy partnered with the College of Continuing Education at California State University, Sacramento (CSUS), USA, a PMI® Registered Education Provider with its own online services unit.

“Our desire to partner with CSUS was driven by the fact that employees recognize the university as being credible, the credit offered could be used as a carrot to coax them through the entire program rather than just a few courses, and, as a sister state agency, it was easier to put together a contract,” Murphy says.

Together, Caltrans and the College of Continuing Education developed a nine-course Caltrans-focused project management certificate program. Seven courses are delivered online and two in a classroom-style setting.

The two classroom-style courses, Project Human Resource Management and Application of Project Management Fundamentals, are offered at least twice a year at various California locations. “Caltrans has made very wise decisions about which courses to deliver online versus in the classroom,” says Lee Towe, PMP, president of Innovators International Inc., Des Moines, Iowa, USA, who teaches two online and two classroom courses. “Some HR things can be handled in an online environment, but the people issues are really better taught in person.”

While all courses align with A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), the examples, case studies and class exercises utilize Caltrans information, forms and feedback, equipping students with practical tools that can be applied immediately on the job.

This program “allows students to utilize familiar tools and current project examples, and it brings together employees from different districts across the state, which is a huge benefit in terms of networking, idea sharing and creating organizational synergy,” says Jenni Helfrich, a senior program manager with the College of Continuing Education.

The first online course was offered in December 2000. To date, more than 90 Caltrans employees have completed the program, with an additional 200 currently enrolled.

Cost, Consistency, Convenience

Lower costs, greater consistency and overall convenience have been the long-term return on investment.

The cost savings for online versus vendor-led classroom training derive from the cost of course development, delivery (including instructor time and facility rental), student time and the associated travel costs.

Using Introduction to Project Management as a sample, the online delivery was found to be 156 percent cheaper than delivering the same course in a traditional classroom setting—saving Cal-trans $950,000 between December 2000 and September 2002 when more than 600 students completed the course.

img The savings allow the program to continue operation today even though funding for project management training has all but disappeared. “It really impresses me that Caltrans is putting their money where their mouth is because any non-mandatory training in these fiscal times is just unheard of,” says Adrian Levy, a senior transportation engineer in Oakland, Calif., USA, who completed the program in November 2003 and now is pursuing Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification.

The online training format enables Caltrans to deliver training programs to employees statewide without the inevitable variations caused by individual instructors. “We are after a consistency in the understanding of what project management is and what it means at Caltrans so that we are all speaking the same language,” Murphy says. Online training eliminates unknown variables and ensures that every student receives the same information and completes the same assignments.

The increased convenience speaks for itself. Employees are missing fewer days in the office, spending less time away from their families and completing their course-work in sync with their own personal and professional schedules.


Employees at the senior level and above (1,500-2,000 people) who handle Caltrans project delivery can receive division project management certification via seven online and two on-site courses.



  • Introduction to Project Management
  • Project Scope, Schedule and Cost Management
  • Project Quality Management
  • Project Communication Management
  • Project Risk Management
  • Project Procurement Management
  • Ethics for Capital Projects.

On Site

  • Project Human Resource Management
  • Application of Project Management Fundamentals.

Culture Shock

As the first unit within Caltrans to embrace online training as a primary delivery model, the Division of Project Management needed to sell the concept to an employee population unfamiliar with the virtual classroom.

img “We did have to deal with a widespread cultural shift from vendor-led classroom training in nice locations to sitting at a computer at work or home. This was a significant hurdle to overcome,” Murphy says. “We spent about a year saying, ‘No,’ to people who wanted to continue with the vendor-led training.”

The College of Continuing Education also taught Cal-trans how to market the program internally using a program-specific Web site, postcards and customized mouse pads. “We are invested in this curriculum not only because we are educators, but also because we are Californians,” Helfrich says. “Anything that we can do to make our roads and bridges safer and the projects run more smoothly is in our best interest as well.”


Student: Cindy Simeroth

Position: Project Manager Assistant, District 5 (Central Coast)

Career Path: Eighteen years in state employment, four years with Caltrans, including two years in her current position. Assists three project managers.

Impact: “Coming into my job cold without any project management background, it was very helpful to get the knowledge base and have the processes explained to me. Before this, everything was just a big black hole. I was taught this task and that task without seeing how they were related.”

Student: Lam Nguyen

Position: Office Chief of Project Management, Division of Engineering Services (Sacramento)

Career Path: Seventeen years with Caltrans including two years in his current position. Manages the staff that provides project management-related information to all 12 statewide districts.

Impact: “This program definitely enhanced my knowledge of project management practices and gave me a more well-rounded approach—not just within Caltrans, but also by bringing in PMI and industry information. It reinforced our department's commitment to use project management to reach our goals and helped my staff to see that the department was behind this effort. We've tried project management since 1989, and they needed to know that this wasn't just the flavor of the week.”

Student: Adrian Levy

Position: Senior Transportation Engineer, District 4 (San Francisco Bay)

Career Path: Sixteen years with Caltrans. Supervises five to seven engineers, develops ramp meter projects and works with local governments regarding the placement of freeway ramp meters.

Impact: “Through this certificate program, I obtained an in-depth appreciation of project management. It's given me the desire to roll up my sleeves and become a project manager someday. And it's prepared me to take the PMP® certification exam.”

While Murphy and his team coaxed students into the virtual classroom, Helfrich and the online services team at the College of Continuing Education guided students through the ins and outs of online learning. “It's relatively easy once you know what to expect, but, at first, the passwords, quizzes, readings and animation were a little overwhelming to students,” Helfrich says. Once they have a few assignments completed, however, the students tend to relax.

The college's online services team has had to be diligent in fixing technical glitches, responding to student feedback and being available to answer student questions. Students are routinely contacted after the class to gauge their experience with the online tools and the program as a whole.

“In some of the first courses, students would post an assignment or take a quiz and then call five minutes later to see how they did or to make sure that their scores were recorded on our end before they were comfortable logging off,” Helfrich says. “But now there's an understanding and a comfort level with the tools.”

For many students, Introduction to Project Management serves as their first experience with online learning and achieves mixed reviews. Nigel Blampied, PMP, chief of the Caltrans Office of Project Management Improvement, Sacramento, Calif., USA, found it hard to carve the time out of his schedule. “You don't have quite the same amount of interaction, but on the other hand, you don't waste time either,” he says. “In a classroom setting, the class tends to move at the pace of the slowest students. I really enjoy the self-paced work.”


This program definitely enhanced my knowledge of project management practices and gave me a more well-rounded approach.

Lam Nguyen,
Office Chief of Project Management, Division of Engineering
Services, California Department of Transportation,
Sacramento, Calif., USA

Lam Nguyen, office chief of project management for Caltrans, the first employee to earn the certificate, approached online learning with mixed feelings. “It's definitely flexible in the sense that you can do it when you need to or when you have the time, not like a classroom training that eats up two or three days of set time,” Nguyen says. “But it definitely requires dedication and motivation to plan to do the work. The first course kind of caught me by surprise because I left it until I had time and then I had to rush to catch up.”

Building on the Benefits

Skilled staff are better able to deliver the capital projects that improve mobility across California; course assessment results prove it.

img As part of the Division of Project Management's continuous improvement effort, each course includes a pre- and post-assessment of the student knowledge and skills targeted by the curriculum. For Introduction to Project Management, the pre-assessment average score consistently is 55 percent while the average post-assessment score is 95 percent, demonstrating that students are gaining the desired knowledge.

The Division of Project Management's success with online training has sparked other Caltrans divisions to follow suit. Several are developing their own online courses, and the Division of Training has introduced a Caltrans Overview course.

Additionally, Caltrans and the College of Continuing Education have opened the program to the public as the Project Management Certificate Program for Transportation Professionals. The public program utilizes the same Caltrans-focused curriculum and is targeted toward people associated with the transportation industry or those who work with large infrastructure projects.

“The public offering of this program creates an environment where people from all aspects of the industry are able to gain comprehensive project management training and see how Caltrans does business,” Helfrich says. “This will enable them to more closely align their own project management functions to the Caltrans model, facilitating a more flexible network of partnering agencies.” PM

Allison L. Shaw is a writer for the College of Continuing Education at California State University, Sacramento, Calif., USA.




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