how to move into a career in project management

From: Association for Project Management
Published: Tue Sep 19 2023

Blog posted by: Jen Elsam, 15 Sep 2023.

If, like me, you have done an internet search on how to become a project manager, the results will show various university degrees and other full-time education, while all assistant Project Manager vacancies ask for experience or some other formal training. This can be disheartening and frustrating for those who want to move into project management, however, all is not lost - there are alternative routes!

After leaving school with no clue about what I wanted to do ‘when I grew up', with only my GSCEs on my CV, I job hopped for a while, trying to find something I was passionate about, and eventually I got lucky with an entry level job on site for Maintenance on the railway. I had a couple of opportunities to work on some small renewal projects and loved it. No project is alike, and I loved the variation and getting to meet new people on each project.

This is when started my internet searches. However, I realised I didn't meet the requirements of a degree and experience and very nearly gave up. I decided to try my luck and just apply to a Project Planner role, but with no experience, I didn't get the job. I got lucky, though, and 6 months later, they contacted me and offered me a trainee planner job as they were impressed with my enthusiasm and railway background.

After a couple of years learning about schedule management and project controls and moving to Arup, I began to undertake other smaller project management tasks and constantly offered to help the Project Managers with resource and cost management. After some advice from a colleague, I joined the APM and started using the resources to learn and identify gaps in my knowledge. Whenever I came across something that I didn't know, I would log in and use the APM resource to learn about that topic and how to apply it. I started to want to learn more about the other aspects of project management and was given the opportunity to undertake some formal training which really helped me to understand how it all linked together.

After becoming a full member with the APM as an SME in planning, I got some confidence and I started to attend APM events and webinars; attendance at these events widened my network and provided me with key contacts.

But this wasn't enough - I wanted more. I wanted my own project to manage and put all my learning into practise. I started volunteering for a local project to rejuvenate a local swimming pool into a community hub. This gave me insight into business cases and governance, which I would never have been able to achieve in my day-to-day role and I was able to give back to my local community in the process.

Arup gave me the opportunity to side-step into a fully-fledged project manager role and I was given the responsibility of managing £8m to help deliver the design for a major railway project. After two years of this and constantly learning, I am overjoyed to be able to say I am chartered. The chartered process was a great experience to look back and pull all my experience together. I have demonstrated to myself and my peers what I have achieved, and I am able to validate my experience even though an alternative route.

Now, I am an advocate for alternative routes - I tell anyone who is trying to get into project management the same thing; if you are willing to put in the time to learn and improve your knowledge, then you can progress in your career no matter what your background or route is.

Here are some tips you can do:

  • Join the APM as soon as possible and make use of the resources available.
  • Use the competence framework tool to identify your knowledge and experience - you might find you have some experience in areas that you didn't realise. There is a lot of transferable skills.
  • Start a CPD and record your all learning and experience from the start and be detailed on your outcomes and what you have learnt. This will help when you do pull together your chartership application and help you remember all the great experiences you have had.
  • Take chances. Even what first appears like a failure can result in an opportunity!
  • Look out for opportunities to gain experience and knowledge. Develop your hands on experience by volunteering to manage the new kitchen fit out for your office for instance or offer to help other members of your team with some simple tasks.
  • Network, network, network by using APM events, webinars and LinkedIn. I have had some really great chance encounters with people, and this has massively benefited my career.
  • Project management is all about communication. Practising dealing with people from a variety of backgrounds and adjusting styles depending on audience is a huge plus - another reason to attend networking events.
  • Remember transferable skills are important. You may find that you have already managed a form of project or done some aspects of project management without realising.
  • Do some formal training in classroom training to learn techniques to be able to put into practise and will help with understanding of how each aspect fits together.
  • Patience. Becoming a good well rounded project manager does not happen overnight.

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Company: Association for Project Management

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