Tips for Beginning and Growing as a Project Manager in Construction
When you were four, what did you want to be when you grew up? Maybe it was a doctor, an artist or a firefighter. For many of us in construction, we’ve always known deep down what we love and what we wanted to be: a builder.
While construction might not have been all of our childhood career aspirations, the majority of those who work in the industry today share a love of building. It’s amazing to see parts become wholes, to watch a humming construction site transform from a ground-level pile of materials into a beautiful high-rise, hospital, office building or campus. Even better than participating in the building process is working in construction project management and getting to help direct the organized chaos that eventually produces a cohesive product.
But paving your path in this industry can prove challenging, particularly in construction project management. Our goal? To make that path just a little bit easier.
In honor of Careers in Construction Month, we’re here to provide some career tips for project managers. Whether you’re looking to make the transition from Project Engineer to Project Manager (PM), excel in your current role as PM or set goals while you make your way to becoming a Project Executive, here’s our guide to success.
Before the Job: How to Get Started in a Construction Project Manager Role
First, Is Construction Project Management Right for You?
In the most basic terms, the role of a project manager is to lead teams and keep projects on budget and time. According to Study.com the job description includes, “Construction project managers control the time, cost and quality of construction projects, from residential, commercial and industrial buildings to roads, bridges and schools. They plan and coordinate all aspects of the construction process, including hiring contractors and working with engineers, architects and vendors. A single manager might oversee an entire construction project, or multiple managers might oversee specific aspects of a larger project.”
Project managers also assess the site to ensure it meets health and safety requirements, interface with the customer and report on progress and serve as a resource for workers they manage.
In short, it’s a massive amount of responsibility and pressure. While a project manager role sounds great on paper to many – offering good money and significant career development – not everyone is meant to be a PM. It requires essential skills in leadership, communication, time management, coordination, problem-solving, accountability and planning.
Moreover, owners are quick to blame when things go wrong, so project managers need to handle the pressure that comes with the job gracefully. To truly excel in a PM role, it takes someone with a strong mind and willpower to take ownership and problem solve when needed. If that’s not for you, that’s okay. Just ask yourself if you’re dedicated to pursuing this as a career versus just continuing this because it’s the next logical step to take.
To Degree or Not to Degree?
In today’s world, it has become much more common for construction project managers to have a college degree, usually bachelor’s, though associate’s and master’s degrees aren’t uncommon either. These degrees range widely in the technical and scientific fields, primarily including:
- Construction management
- Building studies and building engineering
- Surveying and civil engineering
- Construction engineering
If you choose not to pursue a degree, an apprenticeship is a smart route to gain initial industry knowledge and experience. Even if you do get a degree, apprenticeships can provide extra exposure to help make your resume stand out when the job-hunting time rolls around. Similarly, even gaining basic field experience such as working part-time at a construction site as a summer job will help provide insight into what a jobsite is really like. It’s essential to accept small steps and roles along the way to get to that bigger picture. Even the smallest amount of experience will get you one step closer to the PM role you desire.
What If the Promotion Just Isn’t Happening?
Does it seem like you’re waiting in limbo for a promotion? If you’ve been working in construction for a while as an estimator, project engineer or in another role, but you’re itching to make the move up to PM, here are a few steps to help get over the edge.
Be Patient but Make Your Career Goals Clear
You can’t expect to make one career jump to the next instantaneously, and impatience will do nothing but turn your superiors off. There is value in proving you know how to wait. Nevertheless, ensure your career goals and plan are clearly stated to your manager to set expectations. Also, once again, accept small responsibilities or promotions, such as a move to assistant project manager, as wins towards your end goal.
Continue Your Commitment to the Job
Beyond a commitment to your day-to-day job duties, one smart way to showcase your value in construction is by jumping in to improve processes and productivity. If you see something that can be changed or improved, make suggestions for how to enhance workflows, bring new ideas to your bosses and other stakeholders and play an active role in getting others’ suggestions heard.
Consider Pursuing a Course
If you keep on pushing, but your lack of experience or a formal degree in construction project management is still holding you back from your desired promotion, consider getting serious about education. Even if you don’t want to pursue a formal degree, even taking an online course or short boot camp program can give you a leg up in the long-run.
Learn from Mentors and Leaders You Respect
You have many resources at your disposal on the jobsite, but don’t underestimate the power of building relationships. Find a mentor you admire or develop a professional bond with your boss to learn how they got where they are. Their experience may prove invaluable to you.
Kara Hermann, Project Manager at Sprig Electric, shares more about the benefits of speaking with a mentor when she was in a time of indecisiveness. She says,
“When I was looking to get out of engineering, I had somebody who’s a mentor to me say, ‘I think you should look at being a project manager in construction.’ Even though I didn’t know construction, he told me, ‘Don’t worry. They’ll teach you.’”
Get Your Boots Dirty
In construction, the best way to learn something is through experience. Don’t be afraid to get your boots dirty and be more active in the field. Take on more experiences and roles to continue learning through first-hand experience.
According to Grace Link, Project Manager at Link Construction Group, “Ask as many questions as you can about how things are put together. The people you ask love to talk about their work and don’t mind explaining things to you. You’d be amazed at how much knowledge you can gain from your field guys, supers and subcontractors.”
Landed the Job: Finding Success as a Construction PM
Congrats! You finally landed the coveted role as construction project manager. Whether you want to simply excel in this job or grow into your next position, we’ll provide some ways to help you find success.
Make Work Your Passion
Consider your career in construction project management a passion, not a job. If you want to be successful, you need to love what you do – it’s the only way you’ll find the motivation to grow in your career. Beyond taking care of your well-being and mental health and family obligations, immersing yourself fully in a career you love is the only way you’ll find long-term achievement and happiness.
Embrace Technology and Other Tools of the Trade
Today’s modern construction project managers need to be willing to embrace new technologies. In addition to construction project management platforms, stay abreast with tech in the field, such as collaboration software. Even if you’re not using these platforms yourself, playing a leading role in getting tech to your teams will pay off big on how communication is done on your projects.
Take it from Michael Storer, PM at Shimmick Construction Company,
“Don’t be afraid to try to innovate and suggest new things to a peer that has been doing it the exact same way for the last twenty years. Construction is a collaborative environment. There are new technologies out there emerging every year, month and day. Speaking up and suggesting new things is the only way that this industry is going to progress and become safer, faster and easier. The more we innovate, the better this industry will become.”
Focus on Your Communication
Poor communication has a high cost in construction project management, but luckily, it’s a skill that can be enhanced and refined over time. Hone your communication styles, including your emotional intelligence, which will allow you to better understand and connect with your team.
To keep plans in place, construction managers need to be organized. Practice and refine your organizational skills and use technology and tools where applicable.
Develop Good Relationships with Your Team
Keeping your team safe and happy is essential to your success in construction project management. Grow relationships with your team over time and listen to them when they have issues or need help. It’s critical you stay dependable because this is one of the easiest ways to reduce turnover and keep your team around for the long haul.
Henry Escobar, Project Manager at Tellepsen Builders recently reflected on how he has prioritized his team throughout his career.
“People are ultimately more important than the tasks I have to do, even though I have to do them. But there’s always time to listen to whatever they may be going through,” he comments.
If you want to stay successful in your path as a construction project manager – and especially if you’re thinking about a career as a project executive down the road – keep setting goals for yourself. Do routine check-ins to see how you are progressing and adapt when necessary. Moreover, make sure you get feedback from your managers and team members to learn how you can improve.
Keep Clients in the Loop
As a project manager, your reputation within and outside your company and project is critical. Make sure you always prioritize communications and interactions with your owners, so they know what’s going on, feel comfortable and trust the work you’re doing and eventually sing your praises from the rooftops.
Hone Budget Management Skills
Budgeting is another essential skill of a successful project manager, but not everyone has an automatic feel for it. Take the time to improve your budgeting skills with a study of cost control, monitoring and accounting. Knowing how you are spending and what you can cut, when necessary, can help keep your projects on track and signal to your client/owner that you are doing everything you can to make the project a success.
Find Your Groove
You can learn about every project manager method and tool in the book, but the only effective ones are those that work best for you and your team/project. Take the time you need to work out kinks, learn what you need to know and practice skills, and you’ll land on your feet sooner than later.
Tenured PMs: Making the Leap to the Next Step
Not all project managers make the career jump to a director of construction or project executive. However, a person with a genuine ambition take their career to the next level can accomplish their goal with steady hard work and persistence.
If it’s your ultimate construction career goal and you keep focus and determination, you’ll put yourself in an excellent position for a promotion one day. While all the above tips will help position you to succeed in your role as PM and beyond, focusing on strategy and remaining patient will help get you to that next level.
First, the strategy. If you don’t have a strategic point of view, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed and falling behind your construction project management peers. A strategic focus is critical for thinking beyond the day to day tasks that will overwhelm you if you’re not careful. Use each project as an excuse to showcase your facility with risk assessment, management and overall strategy.
Patience, Patience, Patience
Second, find patience. It takes time and experience to make the leap from project manager to director of construction or project executive. Some roles require more than a decade of on-the-job skill development, while others may require significantly less if it’s the right timing and opportunity. If you really want the job, the best thing you can do is resist the urge to rush your time as a PM. There’s so much you can learn in the office and field during that time, and it’s a shame to waste those opportunities simply holding your breath for the next higher position.
Another opportunity of which it’s smart to avail yourself? Engaging with the right career resources.
Career Resources for Construction Project Management
Even veteran project managers must keep learning to stay at the top of their game. Luckily, there are tons of career resources out there for construction professionals. If you’re looking for a guiding hand to take your career game to the next level, here are a few of our go-to resources:
- BuiltWorlds Careers
- Build Your Future
- AGC Career Center
- National Center for Construction Education & Research
Project Managers in Construction: The 10,000-Foot View
Construction project management necessitates an aerial view, and this is just as true figuratively as it is literally. It takes a lot of skill and confidence to keep so many moving parts and people synced up, to transition those parts into a well-oiled whole that stays on schedule and budget.
In addition to taking advantage of resources, utilizing new technologies, enhancing communication wherever possible, educating yourself and more, it’s critical you give yourself the time and support (yes, even self-support) you need to get into a groove. Get enough sleep, ask questions, engage with people you admire and, if it’s not too much to ask, enjoy the journey along the way. Just remember, from the perspective of many four-year-olds in this world, you’re truly living the dream.