What it's like out there
BY SIMON KENT
From an executive who suddenly found himself jobless to the new hire straight out of college, five project managers share their secrets to gaining satisfactory employment.
Many project professionals hit a rough patch in the last couple of years. Some got laid off. Some felt burnt out. Still others had difficulty entering job markets suffering the highest unemployment numbers in decades.
We asked five project professionals to tell their job search tales, and offer advice to others.
With an honor's degree in engineering and a master's in project management, Ryan Callus felt he had the necessary education to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Valletta, Malta.
It was his passion for politics, though, that contributed significantly to his landing the position of project coordinator for the governmental agency.
Mr. Callus’ interest in politics—as well as his desire to lead projects— extends back to his involvement with the youth movement of the Maltese Nationalist Party, when he organized and promoted campaigns with focuses ranging from the environment to the government's political vision.
Moving in government-related circles and the skills gained through these various initiatives landed him a job in the Maltese Environment and Planning Authority. His work creating and managing projects helped impress the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who offered him his current position.
“Once a person is active in politics and shows an interest in some particular field, he or she will start getting noticed by peers within that sector,” he says.
At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Callus is now responsible for the implementation of action plans, which give Maltese embassies around the world a number of objectives that align with the government's ongoing foreign policy vision.
Political drive was certainly a key factor for his career path, but he stresses that project professionals must have the skills and knowledge to work in diverse areas.
“One mustn't get attached to only one sector but be flexible; project management is a cross-cutting discipline.”
Mr. Callus keeps up with economics and a number of other fields. He says that those involved in the political sector, for instance, might find themselves leading a major construction project.
“You need to be open to the possibilities in the market where you're working because change is always there,” he says. “If you oppose change, you may end up being sidelined.”
You'd think that a senior executive who logged 17 years at an organization wouldn't have much to worry about, even during the recession.
But you'd be wrong.
Kevin Owen Ellis suddenly found himself made redundant about a year ago.
“You have a couple of weeks of panic,” he says. “And then you panic some more.”
In his previous job at an international cost management company, Mr. Ellis spent almost two decades delivering project, cost and contract services across the construction and engineering sectors.
“You need to be open to the possibilities in the market where you're working because change is always there. If you oppose change, you may end up being sidelined.”
— Ryan Callus, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Valletta, Malta
He was responsible for more than 700 personnel around the world, and he says he had grown the business significantly over the past five years.
No matter how secure you feel, though, the threat of joblessness persists.
"As project managers, risk management is an important part of what we do. It's the same in our own careers. We have to appreciate that sometimes there will be setbacks and plan accordingly."
—Kevin Owen Ellis, Hill International, London, England
“As project managers, risk management is an important part of what we do,” Mr. Ellis says. “It's the same in our own careers. We have to appreciate that sometimes there will be setbacks and plan accordingly.”
When he was laid off, Mr. Ellis began his employment search by identifying the top 10 companies for whom he wanted to work. By reaching out to his network and doing some online research, he found the person to approach for a job inquiry at each organization as well as a mentor in the construction and engineering employment sector.
Mr. Ellis recommends everyone carry out a job-search audit once a year.
Take time out to identify how you would find a new job if your current one were to disappear. In this way, your CV can be kept up to date—and you'll already be prepared to answer some interview questions.
“You need to know yourself very well,” he adds. “For the amount of times you get asked why you want to do a job, it's good to have a proper answer rather than appearing opportunistic. You need to be clear about what you want to achieve in your profession.”
His strategy paid off. Mr. Ellis accepted a position as vice president and managing director of the cost management group of Hill International, a construction project management consultancy in London, England.
Michael Cannon has never been very typical when it comes to getting a new job.
“I‘ve tried reading want ads and mailing my résumé to all the companies I was interested in,” Mr. Cannon says. “Frankly, it didn't do me any good. I had better luck getting my face in front of people in positions that were like those I was interested in and asking how they got there.”
Hearing specifics of various jobs also forced him to reflect on whether he really was interested in that line of work.
“Most important,” Mr. Cannon adds, “I learned how to communicate productively and network with people who could put me on the right track to an opportunity.”
The more visible he made himself in the software community, the more his opportunities increased—even if that meant doing unpaid work.
“It was my active involvement in a variety of open-source projects that got me the highest recognition and opened the doors,” he says.
In fact, Mr. Cannon discovered that organizations were hunting him down and contacting him directly.
“I had better luck getting my face in front of people in positions that were like those I was interested in and asking how they got there.”
—Michael Cannon, Srijan, Gurgaon, India
“As I gave more to open-source projects, rarely did I have to fill out an application before I had the job,” he says.
Having risen to the position of CEO of Acqal Corp. in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, Mr. Cannon was facing burnout. So in early 2010, he resigned and spent time studying Chinese and cycling while living in Taiwan.
“In the beginning of my career, I chased the almighty dollar,” Mr. Cannon confesses. “However, that turned me into an overworked, overstressed and miserable husband.”
In conversations throughout the middle of the year, his friend Rahul Dewan, founder of Srijan, an IT company that designs, builds and hosts websites based in Gurgaon, India, discussed challenges he was facing while trying to grow the company. The conversation reignited Mr. Cannon's interest in work, and he accepted a position as chief operations officer at Srijan.
At the start of the work, due to being in the midst of a merger, he admits he was grinding his teeth at times—but he was also doing what he loves and maintaining a good work-life balance.
Mr. Cannon says he is ready for his next challenge: starting Aihrus, a company to help organizations migrate their websites to open-source content management systems.
“Our careers are a culmination of drive, focus, fortitude and plain old dumb luck,” says Stacey Haggart, PMP, vice president of the Alliance of Technology and Women, an IT career and mentoring not-for-profit organization in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. She's also a technology consultant on projects for Maricopa County, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
“Articulate how your past experience has shaped you for a current opportunity,” she suggests—and always look for the next challenge: “When I acquired a few wins under my belt regarding implementing process and fostering culture change within organizations, I was asked to assume an executive leadership role to apply that skill set in an entrenched, institutionalized environment,” Ms. Haggart says. “The decision to take this position was difficult, as the compensation was lower than industry average. Yet the thrill of the challenge was high.”
If you want to find a rewarding job, make sure your name and CV circulate with the right people.
“For professionals, the probability of your résumé finding its way into the hands of a hiring manager is wholly dependent upon your network,” she says. “Just like any other living organism, your network requires care and feeding—nearly a part-time job in and of itself.”
It certainly takes effort to be involved in local interest groups, attend job-seeker coffee klatches and have at least one face-to-face meeting with someone in her network on a weekly basis.
But that investment meant she has been able to obtain the support she needed in her job search and work advice when required.
“Our careers are a culmination of drive, focus, fortitude and plain old dumb luck. Articulate how your past experience has shaped you for a current opportunity.”
—Stacey Haggart, PMP, Alliance of Technology and Women, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
“Establish a positive relationship from the beginning by getting to know the people you work with rather than just showing up every day.”
— Allyson Toner, RF Walsh, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
”‘Never let a serious crisis go to waste,’ to quote [former White House Chief of Staff and Mayor-elect of Chicago, Illinois, USA] Rahm Emaneul,” Ms. Haggart says: “With these projects, an opportunity usually rises to the surface somewhere throughout the cycle.”
These break/fix crisis situations have enabled her to showcase her talents and convince potential employers that she can deliver the goods, whatever the circumstances.
For those transitioning into project management, she advises establishing yourself as someone with uncompromising integrity.
“Not only will you gain respect amongst team members and functional managers, but you will also find your-self—at least once in your career—having to lean upon it,” Ms. Haggart says.
She also warns those new to project management to get used to managing conflict. No one will ever become wholly comfortable doing so. But good project management requires diplomacy, finesse and tact.
“Skills involving interpersonal interaction are some of the most effective tools in a project manager's toolkit,” she says.
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Even though years had passed, it was her previous connections that helped Allyson Toner get hired last August as an assistant project manager at RF Walsh Collaborative Partners in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. She had worked at the company during the co-op semester of her facilities planning and management degree program.
“I established strong professional relationships with my coworkers and kept in touch with them over the years,” Ms. Toner says.
When it came to starting her project management career a year later, she contacted a colleague at RF Walsh, who recommended the company consider her résumé. A position was open—“and my search ended with having just one interview,” Ms. Toner says.
“I would advise newcomers that this profession is all about establishing relationships—not just within the company you work for but with clients, too,” she says. “Establish a positive relationship from the beginning by getting to know the people you work with rather than just showing up every day.”
Of course, previous experience with an organization can certainly help secure an interview, but that's just the start. You still must be able to demonstrate work experience and/or relevant education.
Landing a project management position in a tough economic climate takes effort. Gone are the days when jobs would find you.
By aggressively networking, doing your homework and being ready for any break that might come along, you'll remain one step ahead of the competition.
Remember, project management is your passion—pursue it as such. PM
PM NETWORK APRIL 2011 WWW.PMI.ORG