Surviving the recession as a project manager

AS THE ECONOMY continues to slow down nationally, chances are the area you live in will soon be in a local recession if it isnt already. Project managers are in that vulnerable middle-management class thats always the first to get laid off when a recession hits and are usually the last to be rehired once the recovery begins. You can do certain things preemptively, however, to minimize your chances

AS THE ECONOMY continues to slow down nationally, chances are the area you live in will soon be in a local recession if it isn’t already. Project managers are in that vulnerable middle-management class that’s always the first to get laid off when a recession hits and are usually the last to be rehired once the recovery begins. You can do certain things preemptively, however, to minimize your chances of being laid off.

Don’t panic. As long as the company for which you’re working actually has some work on the books and is getting a little work here and there, it’s going to need administrative personnel to do it. If it’s not you doing the pre-, during- and post-construction contract paperwork, then someone else is going to have to do it.

During a deep recession, in an effort to contain costs, a lot of companies try to force other non-PM employees such as general office administrative assistants, project superintendents, estimators, et al, to do the work that PMs normally do. They know from experience and common sense that these measures are only relatively productive at best in the near term and counter-productive at worst over the long term.

Like it or not, if a company has had enough volume to where hiring you and other project managers made sense way back when, it still needs you when its back is against the wall, cost-cutting measures or not.

Ask your bosses point blank if they plan to lay you off. If you ask an honest question like this, most (though not all) of the time they’ll give you an honest answer.

Use you own common sense as a reference too. If you’re the only project manager in a company that has only one big job currently with no other large jobs in the near future either under contract or in the negotiation stage, chances are you won’t be needed after this last job is finished. If this is case, then ...

Ask your bosses if there’s anything you can do to keep your job! Don’t voluntarily offer a salary cut, especially not as your first play, but if you play all your other cards and it still looks like they’re going to lay you off, then make the suggestion of a modest salary cut. The danger in doing this is that once the recession passes, your bosses will want to keep you at this same lower salary and not restore you to what it was.

A better choice would be offer to go back into the office and do strictly plan-and-spec estimating for a while (and don’t mention taking a salary hit, obviously, unless you absolutely need to) or hit the road for a while trying to sell what negotiated work might be out there. During a recession, work will still be out there. Even during in the Great Depression buildings were still being built. Work simply will go cheaper because of increased competition.

If worse comes to absolute worst and you really need a paycheck of some sort, you could always volunteer to go back to the field as a project superintendent or even as a working foreman. The danger in doing this, considering that project managers are literally a dime a dozen, is that if you make the company money as a field guy at such-and-such a salary, then your bosses won’t want to let you do anything else from there on out. And if you don’t produce as a field foreman, then you’re fired anyway.

If you really need a job, it’s a tough call. All I can say is that once you leave the PM ranks, even as a voluntary demotion to help the company and/or yourself, it’s frequently damned tough to regain that PM status.

If the situation really goes south, quit and move on. If you’re smart enough to run six- to seven-figure jobs for your company and those jobs made the company money, then you’re smart enough to either work for another company or just quit the trade and go into another field altogether. It’s not as if people in this particular business or in this new world economy have life-long tenures of employment in one industry anymore, let alone one company.

Most people will switch entire career paths at least once, often twice or more, and work for six to 10 companies during their working life. So reciprocate with the same amount of loyalty that you know your company will show you, however large or small that might be, and then do what ya gotta do!

H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited master’s licenses in boilers, heating, plumbing and air conditioning. You may contact him by telephone at 919/469-4900 or via e-mail at [email protected]