The projects that you read about in the media are often high profile, with budgets in the multimillions or even billions. They all seem to be led by highly experienced project managers who have the confidence and skills to deal with the complex sociopolitical environments of their projects, international and virtual teams and other factors that make their work particularly challenging.
When faced with that view of projects, you might wonder how people ever got started. But all those high-profile leaders got started in the same way that you can: managing smaller initiatives, practising their core skills and learning through training and on the job.
That’s how to become a project manager in a nutshell, but in this article I’ll explain three routes to entering the profession.
If you talk to project managers or read through the interviews in my book, Project Manager, you’ll realise that there are as many ways to build a career in the field as there are people. However, there are three common ways of entering the job market in a project management role:
- Through higher education
- Through an apprenticeship
- Through direct entry.
There are lots of undergraduate degrees and postgraduate certificates and degrees with a project management concentration. Further education is generally what people think of first when they consider how to become a project manager.
Whether you opt for a module of project management within a degree in a different discipline, or take one with a high proportion of project management, is up to you and will depend on the direction you see your career taking.
A project management individual module is definitely worth considering because even if you don’t end up in a ‘full’ project management role, you can guarantee that most jobs these days will require you to be able to plan and organise your own work and possibly the work of other people as well.
Majoring in project management or taking a combined degree could also give you a professional qualification (or the background and education required to be able to sit the exam for a professional qualification).
That’s a way to round out your education so it’s worth considering if your chosen degree course will count in any way towards industry qualifications.
If not (or if you aren’t going through the higher education route), I recommend these training courses:
- All the courses from OnlinePMCourses are great
- The PM PrepCast has comprehensive courses for becoming a PMP®, becoming a CAPM® and the PMI Agile certification courses.
- BrainBOK is solid PMP® prep material
- Brain Sensei is another rich PMP® course.
An apprentice is an employee whose company receives funding to train them and to put them through professional assessments. It’s on the job training with support for structured learning too, and it’s a great way to get into project management with little previous practical experience.
At the time of writing, higher level project management apprenticeships in the UK are evolving. The Associate Project Management Apprenticeship Standard (APM) – also at level 4 in the Regulated Qualifications Framework from Ofqual which equates to the first year of higher education – is a Trailblazer apprenticeship and has been available since January 2017, but only to candidates from England.
The Trailblazer apprenticeship is the new standard and has been developed by an employer group specifically to meet the requirements of a particular profession. APM is involved with the project management apprenticeship standard and the two-year scheme includes taking the APM Project Management Qualification (PMQ).
Over your time as an apprentice you’ll develop the skills and behaviours required to succeed in the job, and these are assessed during a presentation and discussion-format interview at the end of your apprenticeship.
Degree-level apprenticeships are being developed as well.
The Higher Apprenticeship in Project Management at level 4 is available within Scotland and Wales. This also includes a professional qualification, the EAL Level 4 Diploma in Project Management.
You can’t walk into managing a multi-million pound project, but there are plenty of entry level jobs that will give you the experience you need to work up to that.
Look for jobs advertised as project coordinators, project office assistants or junior or trainee project management roles within technical functions. These are all involved in the discipline of managing projects, and with some experience you’ll be able to move into managing larger projects by yourself.
Project Coordinator Jobs
Project coordinator, or a role with a similar title that has the objective of assisting a project manager or team of project managers, is a very good entry point for people who want to become a project manager. Let’s look at that in a bit more detail.
Working on larger projects in a support position to assist with whatever the project manager, wider team and senior management need.
This could range from being in charge of updating documentation, making travel plans, organising meetings and taking minutes, calling team members to gather status reports, managing the project management software tools for the team, and anything else.
It’s a hugely varied job.
These will vary depending on your industry and the company and team you work within. You may be able to manage smaller projects on your own in this role, especially if they are initiatives the business does regularly, such as updating a system, where there is a defined project plan and the work is low risk.
Watch out for…
Being a general dogsbody. There’s a lot of admin in project management and much of it can be offloaded on to the project coordinator. However, that shouldn’t mean you get all the horrible jobs.
A good employer will ensure that you have the opportunity to work-shadow experienced project managers and be exposed to different areas of the team to ensure you are growing your skills. A not-so-good employer could end up treating you as a glorified secretary. That’s not what project management is all about.
Gaining Experience To Become a Project Manager
If you know you want to become a project manager, you can start gaining experience now, even before you put yourself out there for jobs.
Build up your experience at home: if you are keen to learn the principles and tools, why not have a go with products like Microsoft Project, Trello or Asana to make a simple project plan for decorating a room or planning an overhaul in the garden, for example?
Similarly, you can also use project management approaches in your current role – even if that is nothing to do with project management. Look for opportunities to manage work in a structured way and use project management principles to support that.
These are good ways to build up something to talk about at interview and to show an employer that you are interested in project management as a career, while you work on securing a role.
Good luck with your job search, and here’s hoping you become a project manager very soon!