Post-COVID Career Planning

How to get ahead depends, in part, on where you start



The worst labor market in more than a decade is a tough backdrop for career growth. Furloughs and layoffs have become commonplace, many college graduates remain side-lined, and those still on staff are being asked to do more with the promise of promotion on the horizon.

Still, the uncertainty that’s gripped the global job market belies the individual opportunities that are out there.

“When we are looking at the question of, ‘Are people hiring?’ the answer is ‘yes.’ There are companies that are still growing,” says Mac Ling, managing director, Coaching Collective, Hong Kong, China. That’s particularly true for project-driven organizations and companies relying on product development and change initiatives to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world.

No matter where a project professional’s career stands—from just starting out to seasoned pro—2021 could be the right time to take that strategic next step. Here’s how:



You Want to Land Your First Job

Where You’re At: History is clear: Graduating into a down economy can seriously complicate a job hunt. A Rutgers University report found that only 56 percent of U.S. college students who graduated in mid-2010— shortly after a national economic recession—had landed a full-time job 10 months after receiving their diploma. With a new wave of uncertainty, first-time job seekers need to learn how to thread the needle.

Take the Next Step: Leaner organizational head-counts could translate to fewer entry-level project management jobs to go around, so networking is more important than ever, says Amanda Augustine, a career expert who has worked with project and program managers at TopResume, New York, New York, USA.

“You’re 10 times more likely to land the job—not just an interview, but the job—if you are referred by somebody,” she says.

If your virtual Rolodex isn’t already bursting with project management connections, start by tapping your school’s alumni network. Searching LinkedIn for connections in your desired industry is a given, but Augustine also recommends asking your alumni office if they have an active program to pair alums who want to be mentored with alums who want to mentor. With in-person meetups largely on hold due to health concerns, now is the time to really dig into online opportunities.

“One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that people who have felt very uncomfortable going to events and striking up conversations with strangers now have a legitimate excuse to do more virtual networking, like attending webinars and online events,” says Augustine.


—Amanda Augustine, TopResume, New York, New York, USA

Local PMI chapters are another way to make and strengthen professional networks through virtual events and volunteer opportunities. Volunteering can help build connections and strengthen new skills that newbies can show off in their résumés and CVs.

You Want to Go Freelance

Where You’re At: For some, working from home— and the flexibility it provides—has been an eye-opening experience, inspiring dreams of leaving office life for good and branching out on one’s own. Counterintuitive though it might seem, 2021 could be the perfect time to make that leap. Amid hiring freezes and reduced head counts, many organizations are increasingly leaning on freelance talent to get work done. Nearly 3 in 4 hiring managers are maintaining or increasing their use of freelancers, according to Upwork’s 2020 Future Workforce Report. And nearly half of hiring managers say they’re more likely to use freelance talent because of COVID-19.

Take the Next Step: Freelance project managers don’t necessarily need flashy websites or slick business cards to market themselves. Rather, a few strategic tasks can generate real results, says Jo Green, career change coach, Sydney, Australia.

First, spread the word to your professional contacts that you’re available for freelance assignments. While staff openings are typically posted far and wide, and will get filtered and managed by a central HR department, freelance positions are often advertised and filled through word of mouth. Tell your professional colleagues that you’re looking to freelance, and they’ll be well positioned to not only alert you to an opportunity but also speak to your experience planning and managing projects, if they know the hiring manager. That’s a win-win.

Second, optimize your online profile so that any hiring manager searching for a particular skill set—say, risk management in public-private partner-ships—will more easily find your résumé. Make sure to highlight any project management certifications, such as PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification. Not only do certifications validate your skills—they provide an effective keyword when talent seekers filter through résumés and online professional profiles to identify the perfect fit. And if you’ve been planning to sit for a certification, consider shifting that to the top of your to-do list.



You Want to Get Promoted

Where You’re At: You nailed a high-complexity project, earned a new project management certification or have taken on more senior duties. But a promotion during the pandemic is out of the question, right? Not so fast, says Augustine.

Some organizations are clearly struggling to stay afloat (think: pay cuts, furloughs, calls to execute more with fewer resources). Yet there are plenty of sectors and regions already on the rebound. For instance, Canada added some 378,000 jobs in September—roughly five times the amount of its neighbor, the United States, relative to population— more than doubling economists’ estimates. To gauge whether now is the time to make your case for a promotion, it’s important to look at regional and sector trends and to take stock of how your organization is faring from within, she says.

Take the Next Step: Even if you don’t intend to make the ask now (but especially if you do!), create what Augustine calls a “brag book” to log accomplishments that can make the case for a promotion.

“You should be looking back over what you have done over the past year and what new challenges you have faced and overcome,” she says. Did you successfully roll out a new project management platform? Assist teams across the organization in shifting from co-located to virtual team meetings? Successfully execute projects despite budget cuts or team reductions?

Detailing those wins will ensure you have specific examples to cite during any talks with your manager about career progression.

“It’s always worth talking to your manager about future goals and achievements, even if you’re prefacing it with, ‘I understand we’re not in a position right now to be giving out raises,’” Augustine says.



You Want to Switch Sectors

Where You’re At: Much like landing a first job, those looking to make a serious career pivot without the benefit of relevant work experience might struggle.

“Changing sectors is probably the hardest thing that you can do right now,” Ling says. “Companies want people to come in and do the work, so the patience for development is lower than it normally would be. And the competition is higher, especially for those more mid- to senior-level roles.”


—Mac Ling, Coaching Collective, Hong Kong

Still, the switch is made easier by the fact that project management skills translate across sectors. The trick is making that case to hiring managers.

Take the Next Step: Make it your mission to get up to speed on the industry culture by studying trade publications, participating in industry groups and joining relevant associations. To make an impression during an interview (and hit the ground running once hired), demonstrate your sector lingo fluency and, ideally, have a working understanding of the business trends and future predictions, says Green. This exercise can also confirm whether the new sector will indeed be a fit.

Then, revamp that résumé and online professional profile. This will likely mean reframing your résumé to emphasize skills (e.g., intensive stakeholder management for a contentious international initiative, or schedule compression on a high-stakes project) above sector-specific experience, says Augustine.

Any connection you might have in the desired sector—for instance, volunteering at a local hospital while trying to pivot into healthcare—should absolutely be included, she says. If you have no overlap with a new area of interest, seek out any opportunities to build up your bona fides—whether it’s working on the fringes of a new sector within your current organization or through volunteer work.

Cultivating a new network in your desired field is also key, says Green. While an AI bot might chuck your résumé into the no-go pile for lack of relevant keywords or experience, a human connection will be more open to hearing how you can add value to their enterprise.

“It really comes back to those conversations, because if you sit down in front of somebody in the area that you want to work in, and you say, ‘This is why I want to work in this area, this is why I’m interested in it, this is how I feel that my skills and my experience are relevant for this,’ they can then help you to understand what you might need to do, and they can also then be an advocate for you,” she says.



You Want to Bounce Back From a Layoff

Where You’re At: Being made redundant isn’t just a blow to the wallet—it can also have lasting psychological effects, such as draining confidence or zapping the resilience to power through a new job search.

“Redundancy is a really difficult thing to go through—it can bring up a lot of insecurities, grief and worry,” says Green.

Add a global economic recession to that personal and professional turmoil, and it’s understandable that recovery may not happen overnight.

Take the Next Step: Ironically, the fastest way to move forward might be to pause, says Green. She tells clients to take some time to process this loss—and engage in an activity they love—before jumping back into the job hunt.

Once you feel recharged, Ling recommends using the experience to inform your future search. Do a thorough assessment: What did you love about your last position? What did you loathe? Did you lean into opportunities for professional development, or were you more drawn to the flexible work culture? How did you feel about the number of projects you were juggling or the complexity of those initiatives?

“I think some of the answers may help illuminate if you are in the right role and if you are going to thrive in the next role,” he says.

Rather than seeking out an exact replacement for the job that was lost, you can target project management positions that not only align with what you valued most but also offer what you were missing. PM



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