With comprehensive management toolkits and specialty project management information system (PMIS) software, project managers help owners in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry overcome challenges and deliver transformative construction projects on time, within budget, and as envisioned.
However, the project management profession is misunderstood by many clients and other AEC professionals. That knowledge gap is even broader outside of the AEC industry. Critically, misconceptions about the profession among students in higher education contribute to an ongoing talent shortage in project management. To address this shortage, the Construction Management Association of America’s (CMAA) brought together industry leaders in 2022 for a panel discussion, “The Workforce Recruitment and Retention Challenge.”
As part of its strategy for improving recruitment and retention, CMAA’s panel called for project management professionals to share their stories. To help increase awareness about the profession, John Cutler, an assistant project manager working out of Hill International, Inc.’s Boston, MA, office, described his entry to the field and his experiences as a junior project management professional.
“I graduated from Quinnipiac University in 2020 with a degree in economics and political science,” he says. “At the time, I wasn’t very familiar with project management. After being referred to Hill by a current employee, I did some research about the company and the industry and felt that my skillset and educational focus was a perfect fit. I’m not sure this type of work would have crossed my job radar without that referral, though.”
Junior project managers perform several reoccurring tasks. For John, these include processing contractor and subcontractor invoices; maintaining project budgets and schedules; holding project planning meetings with architects, contractors, clients, and other stakeholders; and producing minutes and other reports for the client.
However, John explains, even the most minor tasks require significant collaboration and coordination, and the approach to each task varies from day to day depending on the needs of the client and the nature of the project. “For example, a client might ask us to change the format of our reports one month so they can incorporate the data more easily into a stakeholder presentation,” he says.
Project phasing—a way of breaking down projects into logical segments such as design, construction, and close-out—also heavily influences John’s average day. During project design, John and his team meet weekly with architects and engineers to track the design schedule and help the design team hit major milestones established at the beginning of the project. Owners often expect design teams to produce multiple designs within a short timeframe, and management support helps prevent any delays. Because John and his team represent the client, they also review the drawings to help ensure what the owner wants is expressed in the design. This helps prevent costly issues down the line.
John’s team also spearheads the procurement of contractors and other consultants during the design phase. Procurement varies from project to project but nearly always includes identifying and hiring a contractor to build the project. Procurement can also include bringing on-board commissioning agents (who make sure building systems like security and fire suppression systems function properly), testing agents (who promote quality construction), third-party engineering consultants (who help make sure the designs are sound), and independent estimators (who estimate how much a project should cost to build).
For John and his team, procurement involves reviewing and analyzing the companies that have submitted bids to work on the project. When contractors apply to work on a project, they describe their relevant experience and submit a bid, which is an estimate of how much the contractor will charge the owner based on how much they expect the project to cost in materials, labor, and profit. Project managers work with the owner to determine the best candidate, weighing the applicants’ previous experience and price. Project managers also help owners execute procurement in compliance with local labor laws.
In Massachusetts, there is a prequalification requirement that allows project teams to determine whether a prospective bidder is qualified to work on the project. According to John, this can be a very challenging part of his work. “At Hill, even though we have a very streamlined system to manage this process, it is still very time consuming with rigid requirements,” he says. “Nonetheless, it’s important to execute prequalification. It protects the owner from litigation and helps ensure a qualified contractor wins the contract.”
During the construction of a project, John’s responsibilities include visiting the site, holding progress meetings, and continuing to update the schedule and budget. He meets with contractors to help the team meet construction milestones, as he does with design teams during design. Often, John will tour the site with third-party consultants to review work for compliance with the design drawings and the owner’s quality expectations. Occasionally, John helps the owner manage change. Any changes to a project during construction must be formally documented and approved via change orders. Changes on large projects are common and, generally, relatively small—e.g. adding additional electrical outlets to a classroom or approving a small amount of additional funds to account for an unexpected rise in material prices. In other cases, change can be extremely disruptive. For example, if unforeseen hazardous materials are uncovered on site, the project may have to initiate costly mitigation efforts. No matter what kind of change, the project team will have to evaluate the proposed changes and negotiate who ought to pay for the change.
“Managing change is one of my favorite responsibilities,” says John. “We work with the designers and the owner to review any potential change orders. This requires revisiting the original project specifications and even reading the law to determine if a change order request is up to code. That’s usually interesting and always different, depending on what sort of change is being requested. While more often than not change order requests are reasonable, occasionally, we have to negotiate on behalf of the owner. For anyone with a background in communications, business, political science, or the humanities, this can be an exciting task. You have to be fair and maintain a healthy relationship with your contractor while fully protecting your client’s interests.”
John’s work is typical for a junior project manager in the industry. However, as John indicates, there’s no such thing as a typical day in project management. He adds that the variability of his responsibilities on any given day is part of what he likes about Hill and the industry.
John also says the work gives him opportunities to demonstrate his strengths, while exposing him to professionals and situations that help him grow. For example, John’s lack of construction experience caused him some worry when he first accepted the job. “I was sure that being unfamiliar with construction would be a problem,” he admits. “But within a couple months of being at Hill, I was able to lead weekly site meetings with general contractors.” He attributes the smooth transition to the training and education provided by his coworkers. Now, John also recognizes the importance of diverse professional backgrounds in project management.
For example, architecture or engineering expertise allows project managers to thoroughly evaluate drawings and more effectively communicate with design teams. Experience in the trades allows project managers to conduct strong inspections on site and more easily evaluate contractor qualifications during procurement. The soft skills that come with managerial experience, consulting experience, or the humanities support effective communications, leadership, and teamwork. A background in science or social science helps project managers make the most of quantitative data. “My colleagues are all eager to share their knowledge, too,” says John. “So, if my project needs expertise I don’t have, I know there’s someone in my office I can go to for help.”
John also recognizes that some skills, such as communications, attention to detail, diligence, and interpersonal skills, are important for all project managers. “Time management is probably one of the most important components of this job,” he adds. “It’s not uncommon to be on multiple projects. Within my first year of joining Hill, I found myself working on four different projects in three slightly different roles. I am a move manager for a project in construction, an assistant project manager for two projects in design, and a project manager for another project in construction. Openly communicating your responsibilities to project teams and working with your manager to schedule your time are best practices for managing the workload.”
John hopes to continue developing his skills and provide project management support for larger projects and projects in different markets. So far, he has worked primarily on municipal projects and K-12 school projects, but he says he’d like to gain some experience working on projects in higher education. “Hill’s New England operations have strong relationships with a number of the region’s universities,” he says. “Ideally, I’d like to run one of those projects when I begin closing out some of my existing projects.”
For students still in higher education, as well as recent graduates and junior professionals looking to pivot their careers, John recommends considering a career in project management. “It’s been fulfilling for me, and there’s stability—it’s not a profession that’s going to go away any time soon,” he says. “Don’t be intimidated, either, if you lack construction experience. As long as you’re willing to work and be flexible, you can find success in this field no matter what your background is. My advice for anyone looking for a career in project management is to be curious. Every project is different, and there’s always something new to learn from a coworker, owner, designer, or contractor.”
To learn more about a career in project management, visit Hill International’s career page at: https://www.hillintl.com/careers/.
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