What Does a Project Manager Do? A Peek at These Process Pros

illustration of a project management working at a desk with calendars and chats behind her representing what does a project manager do

If you type the term “project manager” into a job-listing database, you will get thousands of hits. Project management is in high demand these days—both as a career and as a part of the work expectation in other careers.

Despite the demand, many people are in the dark about this elusive job title. What does a project manager do? And what does it take to become one?

“I enjoy seeing the projects come to life,” says Zuzana Padychova, project and business development manager for Mind The Gap. “Leading the project from the idea into the final result can be frustrating—but most of all it is exciting to experience how the initial idea turns into reality if the right resources are orchestrated well.”

Whether you are motivated by a career change, an advancement in your current position or plain old curiosity, read on to get the scoop on this popular job title.

What does a project manager do?

A project manager is responsible for overseeing and coordinating the different projects or initiatives an organization undertakes. This might sound simple, but in practice, it’s a challenging undertaking as they strive to facilitate work between cross-functional teams, relay information and adapt projects to changing demands or unforeseen circumstances.

Specific duties in this position can be extremely widespread, as it applies to nearly every industry. While the broad duties of a project manager may stay consistent across project management roles, some industries and work environments may require specialized knowledge in order to be effective—for example, working as a project manager in software development or civil engineering.

Whether you’re shepherding a team through the process of building a new app, launching a new product line or constructing a new facility, there are a few foundational elements to this role that apply universally.

“Your daily activity is about managing three aspects of every project,” says Padychova. “People, priorities and processes.”

Project managers must possess some degree of knowledge regarding all aspects of the work they oversee. It’s their job to keep a pulse on the progress of each project, ensuring all team members are sticking to the budget and timeline—and if not, working with project sponsors to determine how to adjust or accommodate.

“Nothing should be left out. Knowledge of the scope and the team is essential,” says Niz Leni Nava Magri, project manager at Cobeca Group. “If we do not know a process and what it entails, the picture can get complicated.”

“You need to have a heartbeat on all accounts,” says Joel Fatherree, project manager at EZ Solution. He says the work revolves around managing client expectations and communicating with all parties involved to keep things running smoothly.

“It is not static,” Nava says. “The whole panorama of the project is always active in your mind, being updated every minute—and that is why I love it!”

What skills do you need to be a project manager?

As you can see, project managers need to bridge many different areas to keep a project moving forward. Important skills in this career range all over the place. But to get an idea of the most important skills to consider, we used real-time job analysis software to review the top skills employers wanted in over 280,000 job postings for project managers. Here’s what we found:

Top specialized skills for project managers1

  • Project management and planning
  • Budgeting
  • Scheduling
  • Microsoft Project®
  • Customer service

Top soft skills for project managers1

  • Communication
  • Teamwork and collaboration
  • Organizational skills
  • Problem-solving
  • Detail-orientation

A good mix of skills is crucial to help project managers thrive in their role. Current project managers shared the importance of the following traits specifically:

Organization

A project manager is often the conduit between multiple functional areas, and that can mean dealing with a lot of moving parts. Organizational ability is critical for keeping it all straight and understanding the ripple effects of a change to a project plan.

Ideally, a project manager is naturally a meticulous organizer whose planning skills help them anticipate what comes next if changes arise during the course of project work.

An eye for detail

Project managers start with a detailed plan, thinking through every aspect of the job, explains Vicki Wrona, president of Forward Momentum, LLC. Then project managers will implement the plan while controlling the overall effort to get desired results, making adjustments when necessary.

It was an eye-opener to realize the massive amount of details project managers have to keep hold of every day, according to Padychova. To help the project run smoothly, you need to remember all the moving parts and anticipate needs.

Quick learning

Project managers often serve their teams by rapidly learning anything they need to know to help the project progress. Padychova loved learning digital tools to help the team progress more efficiently, “especially when you’re managing the international project teams in multiple time zones.”

Expertise areas can also involve a sharp learning curve. “If I had a Google® ad specialist on the team, I had to quickly learn a lot about Google ads to be able to have a conversation that helped move things forward,” Padychova says.

Communication

Project managers are the point people for all parts of the project. They communicate with practically everyone involved—from high-level project sponsors to individual contributors. Nava’s typical day involves meeting with the project team and going out into the field to meet with suppliers, stakeholders and other company managers.

Clear and effective communication is important for all project managers, but it’s crucial for those working in highly technical industries. For instance, if something goes wrong during a software development project, a project manager may need to relay a summary of what happened in terms that are understandable to all stakeholders—not just the development team.

Adaptability

Like it or not, all of the preemptive planning and groundwork-laying done by project managers is subject to getting completely thrown off the rails. Timeline changes, budget shifts and unexpected problems are a fact of life for project managers to contend with. The best are able to take these changes in stride and quickly adapt their plans to ensure goals are met.

What is the job outlook for project managers?

Put simply, the project management field is in a steady place. Large, complex projects that require project management expertise in order to stay on track aren’t going away any time soon. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), employment of project management specialists and business operations specialists is projected to grow by 5 percent from 2020-2030.2

Additionally, a Project Management Institute (PMI)® report estimates a need for 87.7 million project management-related professionals worldwide by 2027.3 PMI notes that global industries like healthcare and professional services have shifted into more of a project-related orientation at the same time as a large wave of project management professionals are beginning to retire.3

What is a project manager’s salary?

According to the DOL, the 2020 median annual wage for project management specialists and business operations specialists was $77,420.3 The figure will fluctuate depending on your experience, location and the industry you work in. As you might expect, highly technical industries that require specialized knowledge tend to come with higher earning potential as employers place a premium on expertise that’s challenging to quickly pick up on the job.

What type of education or training is needed to be a project manager?

Out of the job postings for project managers in the last year, 78 percent sought a candidate with a bachelor’s degree.1 This indicates that employers value education in terms of this role. A bachelor’s degree in any area of study relevant to the industry may be a good start—but anyone who knows they want to pursue project management could apply a Business Management or leadership-focused program right from the jump.

Additionally, professional certifications can be a great way to bolster a would-be project manager’s resume. The Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® certification from the PMI is an excellent introductory option. Once established in a project management career, the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification is a well-recognized option worth considering.

Wrona claims more and more companies and government agencies are requiring PMP certification for their employees or sub-contractors. While some employees take on project management as one of their many tasks on the job, an official certification can not only refine important skills but also open doors to new career opportunities.

“The PMP certification has truly opened more doors for me than my MBA ever did,” Wrona says.

Is project management the next step in your career journey?

The next time someone asks, “What does a project manager do, anyway?” you can provide an educated answer. Now that you have a fundamental understanding of the field, do you think you have what it takes to excel in this career path?

The Rasmussen University Business Management Bachelor’s degree program can provide you with a solid foundation of broad business skills and help you take the first step toward a project management career.

1Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 289,300 project manager job postings, Dec. 01, 2020 - Nov. 30, 2021)
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, [accessed January 2022] https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/13-1082.00. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
3“Project Management Job Growth and Talent Gap 2017 – 2027.” Project Management Institute, 2017. (Accessed January 2022). https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/job-growth-report.pdf

Project Management Institute (PMI), Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) and Project Management Professional (PMP) are registered trademarks of Project Management Institute, Inc.
Microsoft Project is a registered trademark of Microsoft, Inc.
Google is a registered trademark of Google, LLC.

About the author

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen University. She earned her MFA in poetry and teaches as an adjunct English instructor. She loves to write, teach and talk about the power of effective communication.

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