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Breaking in: Getting your first project management job

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Want to be a project manager? When even the most junior project management positions advertised require qualifications and experience it can be difficult to get your foot in the door. Here are some tips to maximise your chances of that first break.Experience is the Catch-22 of project management recruitment. Prospective employers want to see that you’ve got it, and you can’t get it unless someone gives you a job. This problem hits recent graduates more than those looking for a career change, but if you fall into either of those groups you’re likely to have difficulties convincing employers to take you seriously. The trick is to find ways of describing your existing experience to show that you have what it takes to be a project manager.

there are many other skills that you have, which can be highlighted on your CV. For instance, presentation skills, communication skills, teamwork, planning and organizing experience, problem-solving techniques and analytical skills.”

Matt Colarusso has been in the recruitment business for nine years and now works as branch manager at Sapphire Technologies, the IT staffing arm of Vedior North America. He believes that before you start applying for project management positions, you should be sure that is what you want to do.

“Project management work is about management of finances, resources and most importantly deadlines,” he says. “Make sure it is a PM role you are seeking and not a Business Analyst role. PM roles are more managerial and tend to be tied more to revenue while BA roles are tied more to cost savings and business efficiency,” he says. ”Project management roles are usually more stressful. No matter what the reason is behind the need for having a PM, a PM will always face the first line of criticism if the project is not running smoothly.”If that hasn’t put you off working in project management, you need to start thinking about what experiences you already have and how to show those in the best light. Even straight out of university you have something to offer a prospective employer. “For the recent graduate, it will be more about what they can show regarding their preparation to participate in project management and PMO activities,” explains Brian Hoffman, a partner in the IT division of recruitment giant Winter, Wyman. “Any coursework with ‘softer’ relationships to project management-centric activities – courses in human interaction, planning or budgeting, understanding business methods, requirements capture or analysis, report writing, and so on, can also be highlighted on the resumé and referred to in the cover letter.”

Anne Houlihan, founder of Golden Key Leadership and a business consultant specializing in HR, agrees. “If you haven’t had direct experience with project management,” she says, “there are many other skills that you have, which can be highlighted on your CV. For instance, presentation skills, communication skills, teamwork, planning and organizing experience, problem-solving techniques and analytical skills.” Balance your description of soft skills with some tangible examples of when you have worked as a team or on projects as part of your course. In fact, your examples don’t have to come from your studies. “If you have experience planning and organizing for a volunteer organization, that would be great, too,” she told me. You can also include team sports and other associations you are part of.

“Work experience is important but any experience outside of work you might have with managing people, resources or finances can help define you as a potential project manager,” says Colarusso. Some workplace know-how does make it that bit easier to craft a good CV. “In the event that you have project co-ordination experience and are looking to make your first leap into project management then you have something to draw from,” he adds. Pick out the skills most relevant to project management and make sure you have concrete examples of them. You can come up with your own list (it would be good practice for the interview), but the essential ones to cover are:

  • leading a team
  • communication skills
  • being able to plan and execute tasks to a deadline
  • problem-solving
  • handling a budget, or at least tracking how much of the work in hand has been completed.

Other things to be included on your CV? Employers also want an impression of you as a person, and a long list of work placements or soft skills isn’t always enough. It’s by no means compulsory to include hobbies and interests on your CV, but if you do, make them interesting. Once, after a recruitment fair in London, I got on the underground with my name tag still pinned to my suit. A young man noticed that I was recruiting for American Express and asked me to review his CV. Between the Docklands and Waterloo I flicked through the pages and gave him some feedback. It was nothing special. But eight years later I can remember that he collected African masks. I can’t tell you what subjects he did at university or even what job he wanted, but his interests made him interesting. If you don’t collect African masks you can still draw attention to yourself by what you do in your spare time. What sounds better: reading, or reading flash and fan fiction? Films, or watching film noir? Detail gives the interviewer something to ask you about.

Once your CV is prepared and you have drafted a concise but informative cover letter explaining what you can offer the company, then send it off. The recruitment process is straightforward: either they’ll like what they see and invite you to interview, or they won’t. If you do get a call go and meet them, try to have a few practice interviews with friends or your careers advisor first. Come up with some intelligent questions to ask, targeted to their company. Dress well, shake hands firmly and just be yourself.

Competition for project management roles can be fierce, so don’t be too disheartened if you don’t get accepted on your first try. Even the time of year can make a difference: straight after graduation the market is swamped with new entrants to the workplace, and employers can take their pick. During the interview, ask if you’ll be able to get feedback if you are unsuccessful. This can be really useful in helping you develop and increasing your chances next time.

It’s annoying to get knocked back because you don’t have enough credible experience. You could mope around and complain about how the interviewer didn’t see your potential and how unfair recruitment is. Or, like a professional project manager, you could embrace the setback and use your problem-solving skills to work out how to get better examples on your CV.

“There are project management learning seminars available in most cities, which can help you,” says Anne Houlihan, who is also the CEO of Satori Seal, which she runs from its head office in California. “If you have the time, you can work as an assistant to a experienced project manager and learn directly from them.”

You can also turn to the wealth of project management material already available from recognised organizations, so you are speaking the same language as your future employers. “A good starting place for anyone seeking a project management role would be to pick up a copy of the PMBOK and a copy of PMP Exam Prep,” says Matt Colarusso. “Also find information on ITIL, MOF, MSF, and CMM.” If you are currently working, he suggests getting involved in some projects your company is running. “Volunteer to participate for anything on the project you can without burning yourself out. Document every thing you do.” It’s all material for interview.

However you market yourself on paper, and however you respond at interview, make sure you are honest. Lying might get you a job (and I could give you plenty of examples) but it won’t let you keep it. You will be found out, through your references, inability to produce certificates or just through finding yourself in situations where you are way out of your depth. Your performance and credibility will suffer and your team mates won’t thank you for it.

But if you are enthusiastic, keen to learn, treat your colleagues with respect and have a great skill set to build on, you will be recognised for your talent and hard work, and you’ll get that project management job you’ve been working for.

A version of this article first appeared on www.projectsatwork.com.

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