Finding Project Management Jobs When There Aren’t So Many

Gaining experience is more important than your job title

January 22, 2021 | Helen S. Cooke

finding project management jobsIn today’s rapidly fluctuating work environment, opportunities for project management positions may be fewer, but they’re still there. Indeed, capable leaders who can step in and adapt despite the unpredictability are sorely needed. You can build a career even in tough times, so charge ahead!

Is Project Management a Good Fit for You?

If you’re thinking about taking on the role of a project manager, the first question you should ask yourself is whether you enjoy a challenge and leading even in the face of risk. If you’re comfortable with taking charge of new and somewhat ambiguous work – and making a success out of it – you are probably a project manager. If you prefer doing things that are pretty much the same from one project to the next, you’re probably not a project manager.

A project manager is comfortable with implementing something quite different from what has come before, using knowledge, skill, ability, and talent to get it done. The work environment may differ, the industry may differ, but the project manager’s role is pretty much the same.

Project managers take responsibility for getting things done. You may already be a manager, or you may need more leadership skills to become one. How you build your career will depend on which strengths you put forward at the beginning of your job hunt, and whether you build additional strengths over time. Becoming a full-fledged project manager takes a lifetime of learning and skill development. So, in deciding how to move forward in a tough job market, consider how you will step into a particular role based on the strengths you already have. Be open-minded about the type of project and the sophistication of the employer’s project management environment. If you want to stay in your own technical knowledge area, you can take a role as a team lead to build leadership skills.

Project management is based on performance, so you need to step into the job with a solid platform to spotlight. You’re already good at certain things. You already have job experience of some sort. Ask yourself: which people appreciated you at your former job, and why? During your job hunt, focus on those capabilities and qualities. And after you get a job, work on building your abilities in other necessary areas. Eventually you will be fully-qualified to manage a project successfully. Develop a plan, keep track of how you are progressing against your plan, and change it over time to adapt to the market. In other words, use your project management planning skills. Track your career development as if it’s a project.

If you’re creative and flexible about the title you’re given and the amount of autonomy you’re given, you can work your way into a more advanced project manager role from many directions. You can come into a new project from the top job in a small project, from a small job in a larger project, or from an adjunct role in a complex, sophisticated project. Breaking into the field might take time, but with a good plan and the ability to be flexible, it will happen.

Manage Projects, Even if You’re Not Technically a Project Manager (Yet)

The words that employers use to describe your next role are likely to vary. You can take a project management gig even if that’s not what your employer calls it. Remember: even if the title “project manager” is not mentioned, you can find project management roles in many different work environments. A true project manager is given full responsibility for the success of a project. You can take complete responsibility for the success of a small project, and work your way up to larger, riskier and more complex projects over time. The key is being ready to take charge and deliver even in the face of risks and unknowns. Using the full range of managerial capability is what separates a project manager from a general manager. General managers usually exercise a narrower range of the PMBOK©.

The best way to discover your “best fit” in the field is by performing the role in some capacity—on the job or as a volunteer—and examining what made you successful. As in any profession, once you discover your niche you will very likely be better at it than your competitors when applying for a position. And being better than the competition in a job hunt is what lands you the job. Learn the buzz words to accurately describe precisely what it is that you can do.

But to get a job, you need experience, and getting that experience is a challenge. One of the downsides of an economic recession is that few organizations are willing to start new projects. That means fewer jobs are available to help you build your experience. The few projects that are crucial and cannot be postponed generally will look for a senior project manager with a great resume. If that is not you, look for less obvious ways to manage a project or build project credentials.

Even when money is scarce, there are still needs that companies can only address by creating a project. Look for organizations that must put something in place or do things differently from what they did before. Look for work settings that are in a state of flux, organizations that are merging or changing focus, areas of the community that are receiving funds to put new programs or services in place, or regulatory requirements that cannot be postponed. All of these situations can generate projects even in a shaky economy. You must try to find who will be willing to put you in that role. Working a people-to-people network is the most fruitful way to locate the job you are looking for.

Be flexible about the job title. Take the job. Be the project manager. Once you deliver success, you can put the project manager title on it. Your resume will show the title the employer gave you, but you can put the words “project manager” in the first sentence. Also remember that salary is less important than you might think. You don’t need to put salary on a resume, so don’t. Smaller organizations pay less. Big cities pay more for the same job because living costs are higher. I tell potential employers that I want to be paid enough to be respected by co-workers and bosses, but not so much that they resent me. Save some salary growth for your future by compromising on starting pay. You might need to compromise by taking jobs that don’t precisely fit your expected career trajectory. That’s okay, so long as the position allows you to acquire and exercise project management skills. Be cautious of jobs that are called “project manager” but are actually clerical, quality control, schedule control or purely communications.

On your resume, list the job title, whether or not you were technically called the “project manager.” List key accomplishments, use action verbs rather than generalities, and offer to provide more details on request. Example: “Implemented an organizational change initiative.” Some resumes emphasize the field of work, others the status of your position, still others the specialized knowledge or skills you contributed. You might want to develop three separate resumes, each fine-tuned to the employer. Your growth and experience will pay off over time when the economy is in better shape and more jobs are seeking expertise in this high-demand field of work.

  • 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.