How Can I Launch a Career in Project Management?

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Crystal from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University asks:

“My career started as an Avionics Technician in the Air Force. Most of my career has been in the IT industry. I recently switched career fields back to defense and space within an aeronautics civilian division in a program management office (there is not project management here). I am now in emergency management. I have a BS in Technical Management – Project Management. I still want to pursue project management but am unsure on how to find the right job for this, and how to write the right resume for this. How do I get assistance on a path to follow that reflects my experience, so I’m not starting all over at entry level in yet another industry?”

Thanks for your question, Crystal.  It sounds like you’ve had an interesting career thus far, and built a variety of skills through your unique path.  You have already had a couple of successful career transitions, and on your way to another one in project management.

There is no guarantee, of course, that you’ll be able to successfully start your career in project management at the same level and/or salary that you were at in your prior fields.  As with any career path, you’ll be competing with candidates for positions who will likely have more experience, more skill, and additional credentials. This doesn’t mean you can’t achieve your goal; however, I encourage you to embrace getting your foot in the door at any level within project management.

If you are willing to open your thinking a bit to include positions at a lesser level in this field, then I believe you’ll be in a position to get started in project management much quicker. This will allow you to get started so you can work hard, gain experience, build your reputation, and advance in the field.

Detailed below are some suggestions on how you can launch your career in project management.

Investigating Careers in Project Management

I encourage you to develop a better understanding of the career path of someone in project management.  O-NET Online, CareerOne Stop, and Project Management Institute are all great resources to learn more about the career track and progression.  Through research, I learned that most project managers started in either a test manager, business analyst, and/or software designer role, and spend between four and five years in this role.  From the project manager role, some have advanced to senior leadership roles, including Chief Operating Officer, after five additional years or more in a project management role.  Your research will give you a better picture of your potential path in this field.

Match Resume and Cover Letter to Targeted Project Management Positions

Today’s job market is the best it has been in nearly two decades.  This doesn’t mean it is easy to find the right job, especially in project management.  It is extremely competitive as employers report receiving an average of 250 resumes for each corporate job opening.

It is incumbent upon the candidate to show the prospective employer how they meet the employer’s specific requirements for the opening.  You’ll need to make the most of the short time that an employer is reading your cover letter and/or resume by showcasing you have the skills, experience, education, accomplishments, and more that match their specific needs.  Recognize that the employer will not figure out that you have exactly what they desire in candidates without you making it obvious.

If the employer is looking for A, B, C, D, E, and F for a specific job, then highlight these things, assuming you possess them.  The “one size fits all” approach won’t work, so don’t waste your time sending documents that aren’t tailored to the specific job.

Strengthen Project Management Network (Network, Network, Network!)

People hire people, not computers.  We need the help of others to succeed both on the job and in life.  Networking (engaging with people) is, was, and will always produce the best results.  Embrace saying hello to others, while reconnecting with people you already know.  One of the first things you should do is let all of your friends, family members, and connections know exactly what you are looking for and that you’d be grateful for any assistance that they can offer to you.  While many may not be able to help with a job lead, these individuals can offer tips, leads, introductions, referrals, and more that can be a stepping stone to landing the job.

Make sure to grow your circle of influence and network by attending community events.  Join professional associations in your field to connect with others in your field.  Utilize LinkedIn to grow your virtual network, find posted jobs, connect with recruiters, further your value proposition through skills endorsements and recommendations, and join industry related groups.

Develop a Good Self-Marketing Plan (i.e. Good Job Search)

Think of your job search as your own personal sales and marketing campaign.  You are the product so you need to know all of the features, values, and benefits you can offer to a prospective employer.  Personally, I don’t like the term, “job search”, as it sounds like you are lifting up rocks to “find” something.  Mentally reposition the search while thinking of it as a campaign.  You are connecting with people, especially prospective employers and decision makers to highlight your value proposition (what you can do for them) detailing how you can solve their problems.  Also, you will sell to the buyer – in this case, the hiring manager.  This is the person who has the power to hire you.  Focus your efforts primarily on the hiring manager.

Most job seekers mistakenly assume employers post all jobs online through various job boards and company sites.  Employers are competing for talent similar to the way you are competing for jobs with other candidates.  Current data shows that many employers find employee referrals as a great way to fill job openings.  In fact, recruitment by referrals is utilized for over 25 percent of openings.

Jobs won’t always be posted online.  So, I suggest that you reverse this thinking by targeting employers.  Don’t wait for employers to post available jobs.  Develop a list of 25-50 prospective employers in your area that may have opportunity in line with your skills, experience, education, and interests.  Do some additional research and determine a decision maker to whom you’ll address your letter and resume.  This is a great way to get your value proposition into the hands of the person with the power to start a dialogue and ultimately hire you.  Companies are always hiring.  The downside is that they may not always be hiring on your timeline.  Get to the employer before everyone else.

Utilizing this strategy allows you to be proactive, rather than passively waiting for jobs to be posted.  It can make all the difference in the world to landing an interview.  Remember, you only need one job.

Target marketing and employee incentive referral programs as described above can be very powerful.  Consider adding other job search methods including:

  • Networking – Engage your network to build your own marketing army filled with individuals who can potentially provide tips, leads, referrals, introductions, job placement, and more.
  • Visit Employers in Person – Don’t be afraid to visit a prospective employer in person as a part of your strategy. While many employers today won’t accept walk-in resumes or applications, it still can allow you to gain some further insight and useful information that can be used in the future.  Make sure to dress appropriately for your visit and bring several copies of your resume in case the employer is willing to accept it.
  • Recruiters – While recruiters work for and are paid by their company (direct recruiter) or client (3rd party recruiter), these individuals need qualified candidates to fill direct jobs or put in front of client companies. Develop a rapport with recruiters, especially those who specialize in project management.
  • Job Leads Via Job Boards Using Double-Hit – After applying online, most go into hope and pray mode as they hope and pray an employer calls them in for an interview. Be proactive with employers by following up on all your applications.  Additionally, target market your value proposition to the hiring manager as well.  Research to determine who the decision maker is and craft a strong message to this individual highlighting how you can help them.  This is a great way to get your resume into the hands of the person who is making the hiring decision.  The first step is to apply through HR, then target the decision maker / hiring manager – the double-hit.  Utilizing this strategy allows you to be proactive, rather than passively waiting for a response.  It can make all the difference in the world to landing an interview.

Join Professional Associations in Project Management

Another way to build your network, reputation, and circle of influence is to join a professional association in project management.  This is a great way to connect with leaders in project management and learn of employment opportunity.  Most professional organizations post their available positions through the association’s website or possibly through word of mouth at meetings.  Don’t just become a member and do nothing either.  Get involved and volunteer for a board or steering committee.  This will provide you with the opportunity to showcase your skills and ability to produce results.

Investigate the PMP Certification

One way that can likely help you advance your career in project management is obtaining the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification through the Project Management Institute (PMI).  This certification is the most important industry-recognized certification for project management. According to PMI, project management professionals with the PMP certification generally earn higher salaries than those without this certification.  In fact, PMP-certified professionals earn twenty-three (23) percent more on average so it is a valuable credential in project management.

Earning this certification takes a great deal of study prior to taking the exam.  Additionally, it can be a costly endeavor, as the PMP exam cost is $405.  The PMI membership is $139 and the annual renewal cost is $129.  Connect with some PMP-certified professionals to learn about how this certification has helped them in their project management careers.

Contact Your Career Center for Guidance

Most colleges and universities offer career preparation services to current students at no additional cost.  Simply put, students, like you, should leverage their career center as it is a valuable resource.  College career centers are staffed with knowledgeable, skilled, and credentialed professionals who can provide assistance in a variety of areas including resume review, interview skills training, job search strategy, and more.  Your university’s career center can likely provide some further insight to help you develop strategies to accomplish your career objectives.  Additionally, they likely have an exclusive job board for current students and recent alumni. Tap into this resource and speak with someone soon.

Putting It All Together

There is no guarantee that you’ll start in project management at the same level or at the same salary you had when you were in your previous roles.  You’ll be competing against candidates who have more experience and credentialing that you have at this stage.  I suggest recalibrating your goal to get your foot in the door in project management, even if it is at a lesser level than you’ve been in other roles.

Nonetheless, there are a number of strategies you can activate to increase the speed at which you land a job in project management and potentially the level at which you start.  Building strong connections and implementing a proactive job search while investigating the PMP certification, can play a role in getting your career relaunched in project management.  Once you land your starting point position, work hard, raise your relevance, and you’ll skyrocket into the role you desire.  It is hard work to climb the ladder, especially in a new industry.  There is no magic bullet, just hard work. So roll up your sleeves and get to work.  You’ve got this, Crystal!

Good luck and best wishes!

Here’s to your success,

Bob Nealon



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About the Author

Robert Nealon

For almost 10 years, Bob Nealon has been a South Florida-based career coach, focused on training and coaching college students and professional-level clients to achieve success in their employment search campaign and careers. He has trained over 5,000 clients with strategies on how to best compete in today’s ultra-competitive market to land the job and advance their career. Currently, he is a career coach at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Sports Management from Indiana University, a master’s degree in Sports Administration from Indiana State University and is a multi-credentialed career coach holding industry certifications as a Certified Professional Career Coach, Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Certified Employment Interview Professional, Certified Empowerment and Motivational Coach, Global Career Development Facilitator, and Florida Certified Workforce Professional. He is an active member of Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches, Center for Credentialing and Education, Florida Association of Colleges and Employers, National Association of Colleges and Employers, and National Career Development Association. Connect with Bob via LinkedIn and Twitter.

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