There are alternative graduate programmes that are closely related to project management.
The job of a project manager in the construction industry is to ensure that projects are completed on time, within budget, to a high standard and according to the client’s brief.
You can get a sense of the salaries on offer for project managers in our guide to pay for civil engineering, construction and surveying careers.
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A number of employers run graduate schemes in project management. There are also graduate programmes available for roles that are closely related to, or are themselves a specific aspect of, project management. These roles include:
- design management
- project controls and risk management
- construction planning.
It is also possible to complete a summer internship or year placement in construction project management.
It is also usual for graduates to work their way up into project management. The route will differ according to whether the employer is a consultant (that mostly takes care of the design and pre-construction phases) or whether it is a contractor (that builds the project on site).
In consulting roles, a graduate might work as, say, a design engineer or a hydraulic modeller before later moving into project management.
Working on site for a contractor, a typical route would involve beginning as an assistant site manager or site engineer and progressing to become overall manager of a project and then director of a project portfolio. In fact, when hiring experienced project managers some construction contractors look for those with site management experience.
At the graduate level, project management graduate schemes appear to be more plentiful at consultant organisations. Contractors are more likely to advertise construction management, design management and construction planning graduate programmes than project management graduate programmes. Employers that have recently advertised graduate jobs related to project management on TARGETjobs include (but are not limited to) Mott MacDonald, AECOM, Mace, Laing O’Rourke, Turner & Townsend and Faithful+Gould.
The focus of a project management job in the construction industry differs according to the type of organisation you work for. For example, you may be involved in the project lifecycle from its initial concept through to its handover to the client or you may be predominantly focused on a single stage, such as the on-site construction phase or the pre-construction phase.
Similarly, you may work across a number of different sectors (eg rail, water or buildings) or specialise in one sector. You may find yourself working on one project at a time or several simultaneously.
Those who join graduate project management schemes usually start out in an assistant project manager position and typical duties include:
- maintaining communication and distributing information between stakeholders
- working with clients to ascertain their requirements
- inputting information into databases and record-keeping systems
- writing reports and helping to prepare other required information and material, such as presentations
- attending project meetings, sometimes taking minutes
- monitoring and analysing costs
- monitoring progress on the project against key performance indicators (KPIs) and objectives.
Depending on the stage of the project lifecycle you work on, you may also be involved with any of the following:
- the tendering (bidding for work) process and preparing related documents
- reviewing technical designs
- monitoring and taking action to reduce risk on the project
- reviewing health and safety guidance
- working on schedules, project plans and managing logistics
- monitoring the quality of work on site.
Design management covers a similar range of duties but focuses purely on the design. ‘Design managers coordinate all the design aspects of a project across the entire construction process on behalf of the construction company building it,’ Tori Shepherd explained to us when she was an assistant design manager at Kier. ‘Our role is most obvious during the pre-construction phases; for example, a design manager will work alongside estimators and planners when tendering to highlight risks and opportunities. We coordinate the design team and select the external professionals, such as architects and engineers, who will be working with us. We ensure that the designs are compliant with standards and legislation. Sometimes we have to challenge a design and suggest alternatives.'
Craig Donachy, an assistant design manager at contractor Laing O’Rourke, explains the role slightly differently: ‘My role is essentially to help resolve problems for the design team and to “unblock the path” for them to do what is needed,’ he says. ‘A lot of this involves identifying the right person to speak to. The design team holds meetings frequently in which we all go through everything that is pertinent to the project and work through any issues. I’ll also spend my working day reviewing drawings that have been issued to check for errors. I occasionally review issues out on site, too.’
Project planning and risk control roles focus specifically on these aspects of project management. For example, as a graduate responsible for project controls you will have input into processes and tools that help to track and lessen risk and you will monitor and report on risk. As a project planner, you will be looking at the methodology and scheduling needed to complete the project.
Whether you join a graduate programme or take on project management responsibilities organically, your first few years are usually spent working on a range of projects in order to gain a broad range of experience. With some experience behind them, project managers often manage the people in their project teams.
As project managers gain more experience, they usually take on responsibility for larger and more complex projects or take a supervisory role over multiple projects. They may find themselves specialising in a type of project, such as aviation. Later, they can move into a team or division management role or take on another senior executive role within the business.
Frances Elwell is divisional general manager in the environment business of consultant Mott MacDonald and her career has spanned technical specialism, client management, people management and project management. After her PhD, she started as a hydraulic and water quality modeller at Mott MacDonald before becoming a catchment management team leader. At this point, she says, she managed a project that became a career turning point. ‘I was managing a team of five,’ she recalls. ‘The project involved investigating how pesticides from agricultural land get into rivers and how this could be prevented. We were located in the client office and so I was effectively the line manager for the team. It made me step up, in terms of team management and project delivery.’
To aid your career progression, your employer will usually support you to take a project management qualification. In fact, a related professional qualification is often a job requirement for experienced project managers. The most common professional qualification is chartership with the Association for Project Management (APM), but you may instead (or additionally) go for accreditation with a construction professional body such as the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB). Your employer may also support you in gaining a postgraduate qualification in business, such as an MBA.
Project managers in the construction industry require:
- relationship-building skills and a sense of diplomacy
- communication and influencing skills
- teamworking skills and, when more experienced, the ability to lead and motivate teams
- the ability to be proactive and work on your own initiative
- organisational and time management skills
- decisiveness, even when all of the information isn’t available (essentially the ability to progress projects)
- problem-solving skills
- the ability to adapt to changing circumstances
- the ability to create accurate reports
- commercial awareness.
At graduate level, you will also need to demonstrate a genuine interest in construction projects – recruiters will want to know why you want to manage projects in their industry when project management vacancies are plentiful in many other sectors.
What are the entry requirements for construction, engineering and surveying employer’s project management graduate schemes?
Degree requirements for construction project management graduate programmes vary according to the employer, but most prefer a construction or project management degree or another degree closely related to construction, quantity surveying or engineering. Some accept business management subjects. Others will accept degree subjects from all disciplines, as long as you can demonstrate commercial or technical ability.
Design management graduate programmes generally prefer an architectural or design management related discipline.
Many of the construction employers that advertise project management graduate programmes run summer internships and year-in-industry placements, which will be a great addition to your CV.
However, any industry-related work experience will also be an advantage – whether it is a week’s work-shadowing of a site manager or a year working as an assistant quantity surveyor. Observe how different project teams work together and how projects are managed, and talk about your thoughts during interviews for graduate jobs.
Alternatively, any work experience in a business environment, particularly where you have worked on projects, will look good.
You are likely to be asked the common construction interview questions outlined in our interview advice feature, so make sure you have a read. When you do so, bear in mind that the competency-based questions for project management jobs are typically focused around:
- working in teams or managing others in difficult circumstances
- how you solve problems
- when you have had to put together a plan of action
- how you manage your time, deal with competing demands on your time and work to strict deadlines.
Strengths-based interview questions might focus on which aspects of working on projects you enjoy the most, and what is most challenging, about teamwork.
If you have a related degree, you may be asked about your understanding of project management tools and terminology – but most employers do not expect a detailed knowledge of project management methodology. They expect to teach you.