How to Become a Project Manager, the Unsung Hero of Every Industry
March 10, 2021
There are lots of good reasons to become a project manager (including above-average pay and career flexibility) and lots of ways to launch a career in this field. Here's what you need to know.
Every successful project needs a leader. Sometimes that leader is one of the people involved in the project, but keeping more complex projects on track can require an outsider's perspective. Professional project managers exist to provide that perspective. They create timelines and budgets, determine benchmarks, track progress, and otherwise make sure that everyone on the project is prioritizing the right things.
You'll find project management professionals in every industry. There are engineering project managers, software project managers, construction project managers, marketing project managers, and technical project managers. For the most part, they have similar training and use similar skills, though their salaries can vary considerably (more on this below).
Project managers are also in demand. According to a Project Management Institute jobs report, employers worldwide will be looking to fill 90 million jobs for project managers and project management professionals by 2027. These jobs will be in manufacturing and construction, publishing, IT, finance, insurance, utilities, energy, and other industries.
Ready to learn more about what it takes to be a great project manager? In this article about how to become a project manager, we cover:
- What do project managers do?
- What skills do you need to become a project manager?
- Are there degrees for project managers?
- Can you become a project manager without any degree?
- Are there certifications for project managers?
- What technology should you master to become a project manager?
- How long does it take to become a project manager?
- How much do project managers earn?
- What kinds of people are happiest in this career?
What do project managers do?
A project manager's responsibilities differ depending on the industry they work in and the projects they work on. Different project management methodologies can also affect a project manager's duties.
In general, however, project management is all about leadership and direction. Project managers are like orchestra conductors, keeping everyone on a project on time and in harmony. This involves:
- Setting or clarifying scope of work
- Onboarding people onto projects
- Creating and managing project timelines
- Creating and tracking project budgets
- Tracking hours put into projects
- Monitoring the scope of that work
- Identifying and responding to creep
- Reviewing completed tasks in the context of desired benchmarks
- Motivating teams working on projects
- Managing conflicts between stakeholders
- Coordinating the flow of information among teams
Whether the project manager is working on a digital project or a physical one, they need to be comfortable working with people from all departments and all levels of seniority. They also need to be able to keep a lot of balls in the air. Some project managers have the luxury of focusing on a single project at a time, but many others have to juggle multiple projects across multiple departments.
What skills do you need to become a project manager?
The project management skills that every good project manager possesses aren't the kinds of hard business or technical skills you need to go to school to learn. They're actually just life skills, but life skills applied on a grand scale. Project managers need to have:
Decisiveness is a huge asset when you're a project manager because it's literally your job to set project parameters. You have to be able to look at all the relevant data and make decisions about how the project will proceed. There's no room for second-guessing in project management.
You can't take a pie-in-the-sky approach to finances in this job. Sometimes the project manager role involves dialing back spending, finding ways to economize, and making sure the people working on the project understand the constraints they're under.
It's the project manager's job to keep projects on track, so when a project goes off the rails, they have to be ready to respond. Managing projects often involves figuring out how to deal with roadblocks.
Don't neglect the importance of soft skills. Most successful project managers are outgoing because talking to people and facilitating communication is a big part of the job. Project managers have to be willing to have awkward conversations. They have to be comfortable telling people what to do, saying no, and letting people know when they're wrong.
There are a lot of project management tools, and it's usually up to the project manager to determine which programs are best for which projects. Sometimes, however, a company will make that call, and the project manager might need to get up to speed on a new application quickly.
Project managers spend a lot of time making sure that the people on a project are meeting their deadlines. They have to track meetings, deliverables, benchmarks, quarterly goals, and more. This is a job for highly organized people.
Are there degrees for project managers?
Colleges and universities are beginning to add project management degrees to their program catalogs at the bachelor's degree and master's degree levels. If you decide to become a project manager, you will most likely be competing for jobs against people with four-year degrees and advanced degrees in project management.
In Bachelor of Science in Project Management programs like the ones at Northeastern University and Embry - Riddle Aeronautical University - Daytona Beach, students take classes like:
- Principles of Management
- Project Planning, Structuring, and Management
- Project Management Tools
- Project Risk Management
- Contract Management
A BS in Project Management isn't your only degree option. You can earn a:
- Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a project management specialization
- Bachelor of Science in Business with a project management concentration
- Bachelor of Science in Computing Technology with an emphasis in project management
- Bachelor of Science in Construction with an emphasis in project management
- Bachelor of Science in Management
Some project managers actually have degrees in industry disciplines and get their start in project management via hands-on experience and by earning project management certifications.
If you're really excited by project management, however, there are master's degree programs that focus almost entirely on project management and closely related subjects. Only 28 percent of project managers have master's degrees, so earning one may make you more employable. It could also help you negotiate a higher salary.
Unfortunately, there aren't yet very many master's degree programs focused exclusively on project management. Schools currently offering project management master's degree programs include:
- Boston University (Master of Science in Project Management)
- George Washington University (MS in Project Management)
- New York University (MS in Project Management)
- Pennsylvania State University - World Campus (MBA in Project Management)
You don't need one of the above degrees to work in project management—for now. As more schools develop project management degree programs, more employers may begin requiring them. A report published by Burning Glass Labor Insight found that 34 percent of employers posting project management jobs prefer or require applicants to have a graduate degree.
Can you become a project manager without any degree?
It's possible to transition into project management without a degree (or with an unrelated associate's degree). In fact, plenty of people find themselves in this role without having ever intended to become project managers.
If you're not currently in a position to pursue a degree in project management, you may be able to finagle your way into an entry-level position by looking at your work history through a project manager's lens. Have you ever created a project scope? Maintained a communications plan? Created a project budget? You may have been serving as an unofficial project manager without realizing it. Consider whether you have any professional experience with the following:
- Communications management
- Integration management
- Cost management
- Quality management
- Scope management
- Risk management
- Resource management
- Time management
You may already possess some of the critical skills and knowledge necessary to become a project manager—or to land an assistant project manager or junior project manager job.
However, if you have no project management experience at all, you're going to need to enroll in a training boot camp or project management certification course. The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers a variety of training and professional development courses, materials, and seminars to help you get started. There are hundreds of in-person and online project management courses, and you might be able to find a project management apprenticeship after completing one.
You may also be able to get some hands-on project management experience at your current workplace if you make your boss aware that you're interested in branching out. If you work at a company without a project manager or a formal project management process, your boss might welcome the opportunity to get you into that role. Your employer might even cover the cost of project management courses, getting you trained on project management software, or even a degree program.
Are there certifications for project managers?
There are a number of specialty certifications for professionals who manage projects for a living. The PMI is the main certifying body for project managers and the credentials they offer aren't that difficult or expensive to earn. These are the gold standard certifications for project managers:
- The Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) credential is for project managers at every career stage
- The Project Management Professional (PMP) credential is for experienced project managers who oversee teams
- The Program Management Professional (PgMP) credential is for senior-level project managers who routinely manage multiple projects or large projects
- The PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI - ACP) credential is for project managers with experience using Agile principles and techniques
- The PMI Scheduling Professional (PMI - SP) credential is for project coordinators and project managers who have expertise in time management
- The PMI Risk Management Professional (PMI - RMP) credential is for project managers who are specifically focused on risk management
Becoming a certified project manager in one or more of these areas is a smart decision. Many employers require their project managers to have one or more certifications. Plus, as you'll see below, certified project managers tend to earn more money than their uncertified colleagues.
What technology should you master to become a project manager?
Project managers use a variety of software that lets companies plan, organize, track, and collaborate on projects. These applications also allow project managers to generate reports on project progress, budgets, and other metrics for stakeholders. Microsoft Project is a software suite commonly used in project management, but it's far from the only one. There are hundreds of online collaboration and communication applications, time-tracking tools, and other types of software available for project management purposes.
The problem is that you might be asked to use one software suite if you're working on a construction project or a totally different program if you're working on a digital project or manufacturing project. Plus, the technology you'll need to do this job is always evolving and changing. Learning and adapting to new technology might end up being a big part of your job when you become a project manager.
How long does it take to become a project manager?
Every project manager's journey is different. Some earn a four-year degree and start working shortly after graduation. Some enroll in graduate school right after earning a bachelor's degree and might spend six or seven years studying before getting their first jobs in project management. And some find their way into project management via other routes. You might, for instance, earn a bachelor's degree in computer science and work as a back-end or front-end developer for a few years before transitioning to software project management.
There are, however, professionals who maintain that becoming a project manager isn't just about landing a job with the title. In a Quora thread about how long it takes to become a project manager, one commenter wrote, "I would say it will require at least three years of focused PM experience on multiple projects to more or less understand the profession... I have seen no one who felt they knew what they were doing if they were in a PM role for less than that."
How much do project managers earn?
The average project manager salary for early-career professionals is about $48,000, according to Indeed. Salaries go up from there, and quickly. Most project managers earn about $80,000 and can earn more than $10,000 in annual bonuses.
The average doesn't tell the whole story, however. Mid-career IT project managers and engineering project managers can make a lot more, and certified project managers, according to a 2019 survey of almost 9,000 project managers, earn about $123,000. Whether that feels like good money to you will depend on where you live and what your financial goals are, but Indeed found that 67 percent of project managers felt their salaries were sufficient.
What kinds of people are happiest in this career?
The people who are happiest in this career are highly-organized professionals who prioritize job availability and job security. PMI reports that the demand for project managers is growing faster than the demand for workers in almost any other occupation, which may be why average salaries tend to be relatively high in project management. This is also an excellent job for people who want career flexibility. Project managers are in demand across industries, which means savvy project managers can transition from field to field.
If being able to follow your passions and make the industries you're interested in more efficient sounds like an adventure, this might just be the career for you.
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