Rising stars

to kick-start their careers, young practitioners should focus on earning credentials and real-world experience





Prakriti Singh, CAPM, IndusInd Bank, Mumbai, India

When it comes to the job market, it doesn't pay to be young. On average, workers younger than 25 are three times more likely to be unemployed than their older peers. And in Europe, the youth unemployment rate has been at least double the general rate for the past 20 years.

Still, many organizations are struggling to find qualified candidates. Last year, more than a quarter of European employers said they did not fill a vacancy because they couldn't find someone with the right skills, McKinsey reports.

This points to the chicken-or-the-egg dilemma facing young professionals looking to land a plum position: They find themselves unable to get a job until they have experience, but unable to get experience until they have a job. Yet, for skilled project talent, the opportunities are abundant. Through 2020, 1.57 million new project management positions will be created worldwide each year across seven project-intensive industries, according to PMI's Project Management Talent Gap Report.

To launch their career on the right trajectory, aspiring project managers are gaining expertise by volunteering for project roles and earning project management degrees and certifications. They're building up experience before they land their first practitioner position—and then continuing to develop their skills.

“It's extremely important to have project management knowledge going into your first job, but you'll learn more from the field than you'll ever learn from school,” says Isabella Stefan, CAPM, PMP, project manager for the Europe, Middle East and Africa division of Red Hat in Farnborough, England. The multinational IT organization provides open-source software products.

Ms. Stefan, 29, began her career as a hardware and software engineer. She got interested in project management while working on projects as a customer IT services analyst at HP. She was attracted to the profession because it gave her the opportunity to add value at a more strategic level.

“I saw the project manager role as the best opportunity to understand how a business works,” she says. “You have a chance to get that high-level, strategic expertise because you're managing a lot of projects in a lot of departments.”

But she didn't land her first role in the field until after she volunteered for projects and earned a master's degree in project management and a Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® certification. The years of study and hard work were worth it.

“I love bringing structure and coordination to projects, and I love working with people to drive a project forward,” Ms. Stefan says.

As a computer science major at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, USA, David Steele, CAPM, interned as a developer at 325 Media Group, a web design company. During his job orientation, the organization's staff discussed various opportunities, including project management.

“It really piqued my interest,” says Mr. Steele, 30, a project coordinator at CPP, an organization in Sunnyvale, California, USA that creates assessment tests. So he asked to transfer to a project management role during his internship if one arose. “I was given that opportunity, and that's where I got my first taste of the field,” Mr. Steele says.

“It's extremely important to have project management knowledge going into your first job, but you'll learn more from the field than you'll ever learn from school.”

—Isabella Stefan, CAPM

For some, discovering project management is like putting a name to a long-held interest. That was the case for Prakriti Singh, CAPM, who discovered project management early in her undergraduate studies at the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies in Mumbai, India when the school began offering a project management master's degree. Ms. Singh, 22, quickly realized she was a natural project manager. For instance, she had treated each 90-minute train commute to school like a project, factoring in float time in case of delays.

With India's project management opportunities increasing rapidly—the only country projected to add more practitioner positions this decade is China—Ms. Singh knew she'd found her career path. This year, she completed an MBA in project management and telecommunications and began training at IndusInd Bank in Mumbai to become a project coordinator. It's a growing field in India across sectors, Ms. Singh says. “That made me even more inclined toward the field,” she says. “If, later on, I want to change my industry from telecommunications to something else, I can.”



To land a project management position, young candidates must demonstrate both passion and professional expertise. Organizations often look for credentials, certifications or degrees to assuage any doubts that a younger applicant is ready for significant responsibilities.

After his internship, Mr. Steele, who earned an undergraduate degree in computer science, decided to pursue a project management certificate at the University of California at Irvine, California, USA. While a student there, he applied for entry-level project practitioner positions—unsuccessfully. His luck changed after a mentor told him about CAPM certification. Shortly after completing the University of California program in 2012, Mr. Steele earned the CAPM as well. “I really started hearing back from companies,” he says. “I was given a lot more opportunities.”

Ms. Stefan learned the same lesson while trying to launch her project management career at Oracle, a computer technology company. “When I was a software support engineer at Oracle, I applied for a lot of project manager roles, but companies wouldn't look at me—until I finished my master's degree and got my CAPM certificate,” Ms. Stefan says. After earning the PMI credential in 2012, she made the transition from software support engineer to project manager at Oracle in 2013.


While project management credentials help young professionals stand out in a crowded field of applicants, it always helps to supplement formal education with real-world experience. The best way to do that—before landing a full-time position—is to volunteer.

After her first year at college, Ms. Singh volunteered for Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action, a not-for-profit in Mumbai that educates underprivileged children. There, she worked on a project that improved students’ attendance levels and reading activity. Last year, she completed a five-month project management internship at Service Solutions, an outsourcing service provider now owned by B2X Care Solutions. Both Mr. Steele and Ms. Singh also spent time volunteering with their local PMI chapters.


“I was very clear that I want exposure to projects so that I can apply the theoretical knowledge I have.”

—Prakriti Singh, CAPM


This combination of education and experience paid off for Ms. Singh. Earlier this year, as she was finishing up her MBA degree, IndusInd Bank visited her campus to conduct interviews for a project practitioner role.

Ms. Singh articulated what she was looking for in her potential employer: “I was very clear that I want exposure to projects so that I can apply the theoretical knowledge I have.” Her skills, experience and focus helped Ms. Singh get the job, a client-facing project coordinator role.

Mr. Steele believes his credentials showed potential employers he had a strong command of the profession's concepts and tools, while his internship and volunteer experiences demonstrated that he'd developed the soft skills needed to successfully run a team. He landed his first full-time project manager position in 2013, working on logistics and software initiatives for Ingram Micro, a wholesale technology distributor. The following year, Mr. Steele began his current role as project coordinator at CPP, where he oversees an enterprise resource planning project and a website-enhancement project.

“Experience is often the greatest teacher.”

—David Steele, CAPM

A practitioner's education cannot be considered complete until he has actually managed projects, Mr. Steele says. “Experience is often the greatest teacher,” he says. “The certificate and the schooling give you a background in the processes and techniques you need to use, and A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) gives you great guidelines and tools,” he says. “But you don't really get the feel of it until you're running projects and seeing the challenges you have to overcome.”


What first attracts young talent to the field is often what makes the job itself so enjoyable—namely, the fact that no two days are ever the same.

“Every project is unique,” Ms. Singh says, adding that the unpredictability of projects, coupled with the consistency of project management processes, makes for a rewarding career. Ms. Stefan says she also prizes the fact that her projects all have a purpose: serving other people. “As a project manager, you're delivering something that will be used by people. It will add value to someone or to a company,” she says. “It's a tough but beautiful career.” PM


What's the most sure-fire way to break into project management? Early-career project practitioners offer tips.


“Attend project management seminars and conferences, join LinkedIn project management groups and attain a PMI credential.”

—Prakriti Singh, CAPM, IndusInd Bank


“Network, and focus on agile. So many companies are moving toward agile methodologies.”

—David Steele, CAPM, CPP, Sunnyvale, California, USA


“Start volunteering for small projects to learn as much as you can. And be prepared to improvise. Project management books give structure and guidance, but interpersonal skills actually drive project success.”

—Isabella Stefan, CAPM, PMP, Red Hat, Farnborough, England

Anne Laurine Stadermann, 28, CAPM, project manager, HP, a PMI Global Executive Council member, Amsterdam, the Netherlands


Two years ago, I was looking for a marketing job. I had a bachelor's and a master's degree in new media and digital culture. Then I came across project management.

At a career day at the university, HP told me about an open project management position. It sounded very interesting. You could have a diversity of responsibilities and a range of projects: cloud, mobility, big data. And I could take my project management skills with me into other industries—I wouldn't have to stick with one. I thought, “This is what I want to do.”

When I came to HP more than two years ago, they told me that project managers are expected to go for the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® and later the Project Management Professional (PMP)®. So many things became clearer to me after I got the CAPM certification last year. Before, it was like sailing a ship and just going by intuition. Now I have a compass. I see that people are more confident in me because they know that I know what I'm doing. As a project manager, you can plan as much as you want, but every day things happen that you can never predict. I like that. There's never a boring day.


Grace Young, CAPM, 22, former project coordinator, Versio, Seattle, Washington, USA


As I was finishing my bachelor's degree in health information technology from Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington, USA, I started looking at entry-level career positions in my field. They all involved sitting in a computer lab all day, but I wanted to work with people.

I contacted my mentors—professors and a CEO who spoke at a healthcare conference I organized—and asked what career they would recommend. They said a project coordinator role in healthcare is something I'd be good at. I could work with people and make a difference.

Last year I was hired at Versio, which does data migration and transcription for healthcare companies. In the interview I said, “I know I don't have formal experience, but I have my education and tons of volunteer experience.” Passion is one of the things that got me hired—it's so important to be passionate about what you want to do.

As I studied for the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® certification, I took what I was learning—like how to create a formal project management plan—and applied it to my job. There was some resistance in the company, but I was able to say, “This is the proven industry standard.”

In February, I got the CAPM certification. As soon as I have all the experience I need, I'll get the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification. That will help me reach my ultimate career goal: working as a project manager with cancer researchers.

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