How to assess potential PM employers

In my last two columns I talked about determining if you had the aptitude to be a project manager and, if so, what credentials you should earn. Making what you hope are the right choices about which employers to pursue can make or your break your project management career. Theres no magic formula for this, no sage bits of wisdom that will apply to all potential PM candidates in all situations. Just

In my last two columns I talked about determining if you had the aptitude to be a project manager and, if so, what credentials you should earn. Making what you hope are the right choices about which employers to pursue can make or your break your project management career.

There’s no magic formula for this, no sage bits of wisdom that will apply to all potential PM candidates in all situations. Just some common sense and reflections on what I’ve noticed over my own career. My experience may or may not apply to your situation and circumstances, and may or may not apply to the future in general. Have I covered my behind enough yet?

A local firm here has a horrible reputation for low pay and treating all employees with disrespect, if not just plain contempt. Would you go to work for such a place, knowing you’ll work for slave wages and be treated lower than dirt? Maybe. A lot of people have done so in order to get the required real-world experience and track record they need to move on to other employers that pay and treat their employees better.

The bad-rep company knows that it is the place where everyone goes to get trained and then leave. They don’t care. They make money off their “indentured servants” while they’re there. Going to work for such a dirt-bag company in your own area might not be a bad initial career move, but only if said company has a reputation for properly training its people while they’re employed there — which this one does.

Once you get your first few years of career behind you and a promotion or two along the way, then you can begin assessing future employers with whom you might want to spend the rest of your career.

Be brutal and gut-wrenchingly honest in assessing potential employers, just as they do in their initial screening of you. If you want to work only for a union shop or only for a merit shop, make your first cut there. If you want to work only in a specific region or state, make your second cut there. If you want to work only a certain size or kind of project normally, make your next cut there. If you want to work only for a long-established company or a new, vibrant company founded by management with established track records who’ve recently gone out on their own, then distill your list on down even further.

Here’s my modest perspective on family-owned vs. investor-owned firms. It used to be if a firm was family-member heavy in its employee mix, as many mechanical contracting firms still are, there was an invisible “sheet metal ceiling” that a non-family-member couldn’t poke through. As a consultant to some of these companies, I’ve found that while it is still true in a lot of cases, it’s definitely not the rule in all instances. The days of putting non-productive family members on the payroll, while not gone, are fading quickly. Don’t discount working for a family-owned firm just because it’s family-owned.

Generally speaking, a company has to have a minimum volume to be able to afford the overhead of even a single project manager. Right now, that number is about $2 million and up, although that’s an optimistic benchmark. Closer to the truth is between $3 million and $5 million, depending on the typical contract size and kind of work. It’s between these parameters, 3 to 5 million, that the owner and his support staff begin to feel overworked and start looking for a PM to take over some of the workload. Don’t be afraid to take a job as a company’s first non-owner PM; it could be the opportunity of your lifetime.

If you’re a competitive person, a trait that I believe is one of many necessary to become and stay a successful project manager, you’ll probably want some “big job experience,” even if you enjoy small- to medium-size jobs more. The only way to get big job experience is to work for a company that does big jobs, but that limits the field to a handful of companies.

Trouble is, most of these companies have very tight qualifications for PM education and credentials, established work records and proven job profitability. If you want to be a big job PM, you have to find out the minimum credentials that most require, earn them, then try to get your foot in the door with them somehow. Good luck!

H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with earned unlimited master’s licenses in boilers, heating, air conditioning and plumbing. You may e-mail him at [email protected].