10 Skills to Transition from Engineering to Project Management
This story was updated on 10/27/2022.
One of the advantages of an engineering degree is its flexibility. In addition to the hands-on problem-solving that many engineers are used to doing, there’s a lot more that can be done and experienced—without giving up any STEM aspects of the job.
Higher-level, more hands-off positions—such as project management—provide engineers with the opportunity to continue working directly on engineering projects while gaining new skills and, most importantly, moving up in the field.
What is Project Management?
A project manager is responsible for the planning, oversight, and completion of a project, along with overseeing workers, the schedule, and the overall budget. They work on engineering projects as well as software, IT, construction, and a wide variety of other large-scale projects.
Project management plays a vital role in any project. Without proper planning and execution, a given project could get held up by unexpected problems, which could cause a serious hit to its overall efficiency—or even lead to project failure.
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Even though the job involves planning and oversight, a lot of problem-solving is still involved in project management.
A project manager is also responsible for process development, which means solving the biggest problem of all: how to ensure each project is completed in the most streamlined, efficient way possible. Additional responsibilities include conducting risk assessments and developing contingency plans to make sure there is a solution to every potential problem—so that the projects don’t experience any unnecessary delays or expenses.
10 Skills Required for Project Management
Project management is no easy task. In addition to great analytical skills, project managers must have strong people skills. After all, their jobs require managing and interacting with a wide variety of people every day such as clients, bosses, engineers, and crews.
According to Terry Suffredini, PE, an engineering-focused career coach, some of the most important project management skills include:
- Effective listening
- Understanding and working collaboratively with different personality styles
- Motivating team members
- Diplomacy and conflict resolution between competing interests
- Availability to clients and team members, even after regular work hours
- Time and resource management
- Budgeting and cost control
- Strong team leadership, along with the ability to take direction from managers and clients
Not only are these skills helpful for project management positions, but they are also transferrable across multiple disciplines—meaning they can help you in your engineering role, make you a desirable candidate for career advancement, or even help you pivot your career entirely.
“Engineers who have good people skills to go along with their understanding and knowledge of the technical side will always be in demand,” says Suffredini.
Why Get Into Project Management?
First, the obvious advantage: positions involving management and oversight typically come with a higher salary range. While the median salary for mechanical engineers in the United States is $124,000 according to an ASME survey, the median income for project managers can often be well above this amount.
Project managers also tend to have more career opportunities with a wider variety, which means less chance of getting bored while progressing through their careers.
But higher compensation often comes at a price—working longer hours, being on call, and generally bearing the weight of much greater responsibility, for example.
“When you make a mistake, it can impact a lot of people's lives and careers because it impacts the business,” says Suffredini. “There's just a lot that's involved.”
A Changing Field
The project management career path has changed quite a bit over the past 10 years, becoming much more client-centric and big-picture-focused.
“It has become increasingly important to focus on giving the client a good experience,” Suffredini says, explaining that this has become especially true in the wake of the downturn in the oil and gas industry. “Competition is fierce and clients are looking for value for their dollars.”
As such, it’s become all the more important for engineering firms to stay on schedule and on budget while bearing the client’s preferences in mind. Project managers need to be responsive and view the project from the client’s perspective in order to meet their needs and goals as efficiently as possible.
A person with excellent technical skills does not always make the best manager, and that’s okay—technical experts will always be needed. An engineering project can’t be completed without the engineer, after all.
But if you’re ready for new responsibilities, want to hone your people skills, and are looking for an opportunity to grow both personally and professionally, then pursuing project management might be the right direction for you.
Tim Sprinkle is an independent author.
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