Building Project Management Experience in a Down Market      

How to find opportunity when the job market is unpredictable   

November 23, 2020 | Helen S. Cooke

Project Management ExperienceThis is a down market. Jobs are hard to come by, competition is fierce, and even while some jobs are opening up again, there are far fewer than before the slump. So how do you keep your focus and build experience during these tough times? The key is to look for opportunities that continue to exist despite the troubled economy. These opportunities include talking to seasoned professionals, unearthing unpaid project management opportunities, and finding ways to use your personal strengths to your advantage. Along the way, you may pick up some useful tips as well as clarify your long-term goals.

Learn From the Veterans

If you lost a job or have less work these days, one way to continue building experience is by asking a seasoned veteran how they got through the periodic slumps that inevitably occur over a career. Ask how they found their “niche” in the project management field or used gaps in employment to their advantage.

I tried this myself during the last economic downturn in 2008 and 2009. I did some digging and found an especially helpful article, “Meeting the PMP Experience Requirements,” in PMI Today, which featured advice from two seasoned professionals. They suggested leading on actual projects, not “dummy” projects, and making sure to take away something new from every conversation with experienced project managers. They also recommended aggressively participating in any project management experience that is available, whether paid or unpaid. This might include taking on more responsibility at work, volunteering to lead a charity fundraiser or a community outreach project, or acting as the general contractor for a home remodeling project. During one slow period, I produced two films as projects while working for a large management consulting firm.

Whether or not you’re paid for the experience is less important than you think, at least in terms of building your credentials. You don’t need to put salary on a resume, and it’s becoming increasingly unpopular for employers to ask for your salary history given the biased pay structures jobs have been found to have. List the job title, list your role as project manager, list your key accomplishments, and offer to provide more details upon request.

Play to Your Strengths

There are different styles of management as well as different ways to build your experience. Some professionals are strong at team leadership and negotiations. Others are strong at planning and resourcing a project. One project may require human interaction as a prominent feature of overall success, while another will emphasize technical acumen and decision making skills. Still another will depend on strategy and workflow integration. If you’re looking to expand your experience during down times, start with the strengths you already have before looking for novel opportunities.

Instead of working at your project management skillset top down or bottom up, try a “side” entry. Take a specialist role on a team and learn from the total team experience while you perform that specialist role. Small projects have lean teams, but on larger projects there may be specialty jobs that relate to management responsibilities. These include communications, managing the risk plan, tracking project progress, developing reports, resource procurement, budgeting, training, or contracting. All can help you build your managerial competence.

For mid-sized projects, paraprofessional roles that are second-in-command to the project manager can handle secondary parts of a project that are only moderately challenging. For large projects, these roles can be sufficiently challenging that they require additional learning and specialized methods. Some very large projects may include the specialty role of data manager to ensure the plan is accurate, timely, and properly displayed. If you think you would do well in a specialty role, look for companies that live or die by successful projects. These project-dependent companies will hire the broadest range of experts, provide the most useful experience in specific areas, and offer the most sophisticated methods. Whether you’re looking at large or small companies and projects, opportunities are out there.

Use AI to Your Advantage

Because automation has stepped in to perform the routine administrative tasks of recording, linking, naming, assigning, and tracking work, some people assume an administrator can do the job of a project manager. Wrong! Even Microsoft Project require its users to (1) have experience in project management, (2) understand how projects are planned and controlled, (3) know the sequence and purpose of the basic project management processes, (4) understand what a “deliverable” is, and (5) understand how a work breakdown structure can help load activities and tasks for different streams of work.

If you’re still learning the ropes, a good project management training course is worth the expense to learn these concepts. A well-planned project, once entered into a piece of software like Microsoft Project, can be manipulated and revised, and then consulted by the project manager to get information for decision making and reporting to sponsors and clients. As data on the project’s progress emerges, the project manager can fine-tune the tradeoffs in time and resources. A poorly-planned project, once entered into software, is simply a nightmare to administer and useless as an aid to the manager.

A well-planned and well-designed project, supported by automation, can free the project manager from administrative tasks. This creates time to focus on the more complex and nuanced part of managing a project: working effectively with people. As project managers build sophisticated ways of managing clients, personnel, and executives, they can increase the chances of success in the organization as a whole. When project managers continue to do well—even amid a chaotic job market—their projects succeed, and they enhance the reputation of everyone on their team. Sharing your experience and working together in these project successes is more important now than ever.

Whether your next project is with your current company, is a side gig, or is the foundation for a future job, a good reputation puts you in a good position to advance in your field. And regardless of today’s uncertain environment, project management is a growing field for the future.

  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was Senior Principal at American Management Systems, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.