Done With Military Service? You Could Make a Great Project Manager

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By Wanda Curlee

Transitioning from the military into the civilian workforce can be difficult. If you’re interested in project management, however, you may find that you have valuable skills and experience. When I was introduced to project management years after I finished my service in the U.S. Navy, one of my first thoughts was: I’ve done this before.

Still, it can be hard to know how to start a civilian career as a project manager. Here’s some food for thought.

First, think about tasks you did in the military, whether it was organizing a 5K race or walk for the base, preparing for deployment, returning from deployment, or staging a change of command or retirement ceremony. Just like in project management, all these tasks had a definite beginning and end. Even if the event had been held before, each time was unique. For all of these tasks, a team helped you implement your project.

As you delve into project management as a possible career, I suggest reviewing Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). You may discover your military experience directly relates to the project management knowledge areas it details:

Integration management is making sure that processes and project management activities occur when they should. In other words, you would not finish the planning for the change of command ceremony when you are just starting the project. Tasks can happen in parallel and can jump from process to process, but need to occur in an orderly fashion.

Scope management is about making sure the project doesn’t expand beyond what was agreed upon with the project sponsor. For example, you are leading the team that ensures all heavy equipment arrives back at the base after deployment. Your scope is the heavy equipment, not the laptops and desktop computers. Scope change may not be bad, but it has to be monitored.

Cost management can be tricky for military personnel because some types of military projects—such as returning a unit home from overseas deployment—don’t always have clear budgets. But many, such as organizing a dinner or race, do. If you handled smaller projects such as these, you had a finite amount of money—and you knew it would not be fun to have to ask your superiors for more. 

Quality management is straightforward in a military context. Anyone who has served as junior officer or senior enlisted officer has made sure the team followed the rules and made good judgment calls.

Human resource management is a no-brainer for officers and senior enlisted officers: they know how to lead teams. (By the way, one of my pet peeves is how PMI refers to human resource “management” rather than leadership.)

Communications management is another no-brainer. Without communication in the military, no one would survive. On a project, communication is formal and informal, and both types need to be documented.

Risk management is understanding what about the environment or team might derail the project. In my day, we commonly referred to this as “operational planning.”

Procurement management is what you need to buy for the project. You might not have had experience with this in the military, but if you have been given a budget, you may have dealt with various vendors to determine the best deal to implement your project.

Stakeholder management is the process of leading the individuals who have a stake in the project, and dealing with any concerns they may have. This is all about knowing people, including their likes, wants and agendas, and managing those.

If any of this piques your interest, consider pursuing a project management certification to develop your skills and signal them to potential employers. In the civilian world, the most globally known one is PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential. (A list of PMI’s registered education providers is here.)

If you hope to work for the civilian side of the U.S. military, check out the Defense Acquisition University (DAU). Anyone with a current U.S. military affiliation is eligible for free DAU courses and certifications, which aim to develop the U.S. Department of Defense’s acquisition (aka procurement/contract) management workforce.

Beyond certifications, many universities and companies offer project management certificates and degrees. Not all of these programs are well respected, so make sure to examine their curricula closely before signing up and/or get to know their reputation through online research. (A directory of accredited university programs around the world is here.)

LinkedIn groups can also help you transition into civilian project management and deepen your project management knowledge. (I recommend the Gr8MilitaryPM group.)

Finally, keep in mind that as a transitioning service member, many free or low-cost training options may be available to you. For example, in the United States, funds for training and certification exam reimbursement are available to military veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs and the G.I. Bill.

Posted by Wanda Curlee on: March 10, 2015 07:50 AM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Very nice Wanda! I had a similar experience. Great tips. Thanks.

Mario - Thank you. All members of the Armed Forces no matter what country have a wealth of information that can assist and move the project management discipline forward.

Thanks for sharing this piece Wanda. As a recently retired military member, part of my transition was earning the PMP prior to exiting the service in order to codify my project management experience as a civil/infrastructure engineer. Since earning the certification, I've coached many others to go after the PMP as well because of the direct benefits understanding (and maybe applying!) the process group structure to their work before, and after, their service. Finally, the leadership component is one that military members will be able to bring into the PM work right away.

One final note: for Air Force members with access to the Skillport Training system via the Air Force Portal: they can take the entire PMP prep course, based on PMBOK v5.

Christian - Thank you so much for inspiring others to pursue project management. While I was in the Navy, I had no idea I was working on projects. I am grateful for the leadership training and the ability to take a large endeavor and breaking it down into smaller chunks or tasks. The military is definitely a place to learn the trade.

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