The Patent and Trademark Office will test and certify patent examiners and managers on a regular basis as part of the agency's strategic plan to improve overall operations. "A well-trained workforce is the most significant contributing factor in ensuring the quality of our products," said PTO Director James Rogan in a statement released on Wednesday. "By making it a continuous process, we will greatly enhance the ability of our employees to be successful and meet the expectations of our customers." The agency will make examiners who fail certification tests take refresher courses. The agency also plans to change the way it recruits new patent examiners by putting a greater emphasis on technical and communication skills and by seeking employees with a working knowledge of legal issues. "The job is a meld of scientific knowledge and legal knowledge of patent laws," said PTO spokeswoman Brigid Quinn. Quinn said communication skills are especially important because patent examiners work closely throughout the patent process with inventors and their representatives. The PTO, which employs 3,400 patent examiners, hired about 700 new examiners this year as part of its effort to help reduce a backlog of about 408,000 patent applications and keep pace with the 350,000 new applications that are filed each year. The agency plans to hire about 750 more examiners next year. It takes PTO an average of 25 months to issue a new patent. The agency hopes to cut that turnaround time to 18 months with improved training and efforts to simplify the way examiners work. "We are overwhelmed-no doubt about it-and we can't continue to hire our way out of it," Quinn said. PTO's "21st-Century Strategic Plan," which Rogan announced in June, also includes a proposal to outsource the searches for "prior art" that must be conducted before PTO can issue a new patent. Prior art searches reveal whether an invention is new. The Patent Office Professional Association, which represents about 3,600 PTO employees, has expressed concern that patent quality would suffer if the agency separated its search and examination functions, but the PTO argued that outsourcing searches will give employees more time for substantive examinations. "The government-related function is the actual patent examination," Quinn said. The agency will accept prior art searches only from "competent commercial organizations, certified by the agency," Quinn said. "Countries and organizations accepted as search authorities will be carefully chosen and rigorously reviewed by the PTO to ensure that they meet the highest standards of quality and competence." About 45 percent of patent applications come from abroad.