The Project Manager is undoubtedly the most influential person when it comes to the success of a construction project. Often young professionals and tradesmen will aspire to become the Project Manager, but the path to the position may not seem clear. Lets explore the paths available and the skills required to do this role.

What makes a good Project Manager?

Firstly it is important to separate the two roles of clientside Project Management and Contractor Project Management. In this article I want to specifically concentrate on the contractors Project Manager, or construction Project Manager. This role is more focused on the detailed management of the construction process. That is the management of multiple subcontracts, industrial relations, construction risks and site issues requiring prompt solutions to continue the project schedule. The clientside equivalent often sees construction as a single phase in a greater overall process of delivering the project eg. a commercial development.

Your role as the Project Manager is to lead the project team in delivering the construction project. The Project Manager is in overall control, responsible for the outcomes of budget, quality and time. Or more commonly known as responsible for “getting the job done”. The Project Managers role is challenging, often stressful, full of uncertainty and requires a combination of technical and soft skills to be successful. Good Project Managers are a rare commodity. They are proactive, solution orientated and have outstanding communication skills. They often have a wealth of experience that can be drawn upon to overcome issues in project delivery. For these reasons good Project Managers are also highly valued. The right Project Manager can command a high salary and generous benefits.

There are commonly two routes to project manager status; the professional route and the tradesman route.

The Professional Route

The most common method for large projects and engineering infrastructure is through the professional route. You will need to complete a Bachelors degree (often Construction Management, Quantity Surveying or Engineering) and start graduate employment at a construction company. Your role will likely be dependent on your degree specialisation. Engineering graduates start out as site engineers attending to site QA issues, co-ordination and document control on engineering projects. Quantity surveying and Construction Management graduates  commence in roles like graduate surveyor, estimator or project co-ordinator. The graduate tasks include measuring quantities, preparing variations and documenting cost reports on building projects. You will generally spend 3-5 years at these entry level positions. After this time you will have gained a solid understanding of construction in your specialist area. You will learn the value of thorough planning, co-ordination and communication with the construction team and the basics of administering contracts.

The next step up from the entry level position are the roles of Project Engineer, Project Quantity Surveyor or Contract Administrator. These roles come with greater responsibility, client contact and ownership of a certain portion or function of a project. After a few years in the intermediate role the responsibility for junior professionals will often be placed upon you. You will mentor and pass on the skills you have already learned. Professionals at the junior level can develop quickly when working with experienced foremen, supervisors or superintendents from trades backgrounds. Good mentors will often push them in that direction. At the intermediate level development is gained from the senior professionals in the organisation. At this stage a good Project Manager to learn from is essential. It is much more important to select the right project manager to learn from than the actual project at the intermediate level.

The Tradesman Route

The tradesman route to Project Manager is often seen on small to mid value building projects and as specialist subcontractors. It is less common as head contractor on larger building sites and certainly rare on infrastructure and engineering projects. However the ability for a tradesman to rise to Project Manager and executive roles within organisations should not be underestimated. Tradesmen make great leaders at the higher levels of organisation’s. They have a detailed understanding of all the requirements to construct projects and often have broad communication skills learnt from years of working with people at all levels.

The first step as a tradesman is to become qualified, work as a tradesman for a couple of years and then, surprisingly, put down the tools. The reason I say this is that your trade qualification is the equivalent of a university degree. It provides the prerequisite background to train as a Project Manager, but the skills of a professional Project Manager need to be learnt separately. With the trades background you will want to complete some form of project management qualification to easily open up entry to the professional ranks. These qualifications need not be expensive or extravagant, there is no requirement to spend $50k at a University. For as little as $5,000 at a technical institute you can study a project management diploma. This will provide a basic introduction and enough tools to get you started.

At this point a site manager/junior project manager role becomes your target. Similar to the professional it is important to select the right mentor to move your career forward. Working under the guidance of another tradie that made their way up the ladder is a good approach – they often know what your skill limitations may be and can help you bridge that gap. At the same time working under an engineer, architect, QS or other construction professional will give you new insights to the job. In the end, the choice is often dictated by the type of work you’re looking to pursue.

The Step Up

The next step is usually unplanned – the incumbent Project Manager will leave the project and the second in command will be thrust into the hot seat to complete the job. This is how the vast majority of Project Managers got their start, and is often an easy transition to make when you know the project well. However it can be stressful as you deal with your new role and at the same time need to backfill your old role. Worse still you may end up continuing your old role as well. It is a good idea at this point to stop and consider if you need extra help – and then ask for it. It is not an admission that you are out of your depth. It is more an acceptance of the added responsibility and the requirement to put the best plan in motion for success.

These are just two of an almost infinite number of ways to reach the role of Project Manager. The key thing for young professionals or tradesmen looking to pursue this career is put your plan into action, select mentors that will help you reach your goal and always take every opportunity to improve.


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