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Getting into project management

Project team discussing project at a meeting around a table with laptops

A career in project management is more popular than ever before, but what does it take to get your foot in the door?  Lindsay Scott, director at Arras People, provides some direction.

Lindsay ScottThere has been a dramatic shift in the way people enter project management over the past fifteen years or so.

Gone are the days when an engineer or an IT manager is handed the additional responsibility of a project to run without any specific training. Previously, knowledge of the organization was judged enough; you were simply expected to get on with it and deliver. Fast forward to today and it’s a very different story.

In the past six months, we have been contacted by a farmer, vicar, landscape gardener, police officer and a warrant officer, to name just a few – all convinced project management is for them.

Perhaps this shift in perception is partly due to TV programmes like The Apprentice or high-profile, dynamic initiatives such as HS2 and the Queensferry Crossing. Maybe it’s the diversity of the role or the fact that project management roles are consistently well-paid.

Whatever the reason, an increasing number of people from diverse backgrounds are keen to become practitioners.

Generally speaking, they fall into two main groups – graduates and those for whom it is a second career. Each has different expectations which need to be carefully managed and directed to improve the chances of success.

Have a degree in Project Management, where next?

The main issue for graduates is that having a degree in project management does not guarantee a job. Many organizations simply aren’t ready, or prepared, to take on an untested and inexperienced graduate as a project manager. The risk is considered too great.

It’s a hard truth after having worked so hard, but there are ways around it:

  • Gain work experience in a professional environment. It may not be your dream job, but time spent in an office will give you the basic skills and understanding of work etiquette to help you on your journey
  • Invest in recognized accreditations. It may seem unfair to ask for further qualifications after achieving a degree, but gaining certification in PRINCE2® or ITIL® Foundation is now a standard requirement. You simply can’t expect to bypass this part of a job spec
  • Consider taking an entry level position in a project-led department such as finance, marketing or HR. The industry is much less important than the hands-on experience you will gain
  • Try volunteering. Organizing a charity event or fundraising initiative demonstrates the ability to project manage on a small scale and the all-important communication skills required to lead a team.

Career change

For those looking to move into project management from another discipline, the situation is different but no less challenging.

Often inspired by running a project or initiative as part of their current job, individuals get a taste for the role and want to do it full time. But, again, the reality is that risk-averse organizations have very specific requirements when it comes to appointing a project manager. And given that the outcome of a large-scale project can make or break a company, these concerns are very real.

Before even considering applying for a project manager role, it is important to take a step back and align your experience with current market demands:

  • Gain qualifications: ensure you have the necessary formal certifications such as PRINCE2, MSP® and APM, which are now demanded as standard
  • And be able to use them in context: a certificate may get you through the door, but without the ability to use the terminology correctly and explain how the frameworks can be used to put a project plan together, you won’t get much further
  • Demonstrate manager experience: the title project manager implies an ability to lead a team of people to achieve the end goal. If you have these skills, make sure you make it clear
  • Highlight transferable skills: by breaking down project management into its component parts such as reporting, planning and administrative tasks, you can identify which boxes you can tick.

The reality

Having realistic expectations and developing a practical plan of how to fill any gaps in your knowledge or experience is essential for anyone looking to get into project management.

We can help identify what is needed and create a development route, but ultimately it is up to the individual to decide if they have the staying power to see it though. The rewards of working in a dynamic, varied and satisfying work environment, however, can make it well worth the effort.

Read Lindsay Scott's previous AXELOS Blog Post, The risks of promoting Project Managers to Programme Managers.

Current rating: 4 (2 ratings)


30 Oct 2017 Carl K
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Great post and very solid advice.
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