Outline of a military figure saluting against a sky, transitioning to a civilian professional using a smartphone, symbolizing change and adaptation.

Transition: Military Service to Project Management

By: Dr. Michael Shick, MSPM, PMP, CSM

Are you among the approximately 250,000 servicemembers separating or retiring from the military this year (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2023)? The transition from military service to civilian life can be pretty daunting; I get it. I have been there twice. You may find yourself in a position of military transition where you are looking to transition to another career where your work continues to have meaning. Or, you may be searching for a job where you can support your family or future family with excellent benefits.

There’s good news—the field of project management is a perfect fit for those who have served in the armed forces. Approximately $48 trillion is invested in projects worldwide annually (Nieto-Rodriguez & Viana Vargas, 2023). Additionally, the Talent Gap, a Project Management Institute (PMI) report states that the “global economy needs 25 million new project professionals by 2030.” Given the growth potential of the field, we’ll start by looking at some of the traits that give servicemembers a competitive advantage, and then explore the various roles within a project team. The next steps are some tips to consider when crafting your strategy to transition. Ultimately, this article explores how you can leverage your military experience to thrive as a project manager or in one of the many other roles associated with projects. But before we get there, let’s define a project.

At the most basic level, a project is a unique and complex endeavor with a definite start and definite end and interconnected among its activities. If you think back to your experiences throughout your career, I am sure that definition articulates much of what you do daily. Furthermore, you’ve likely developed the ability to identify and navigate risks (e.g., quantitativequalitative, etc.), deal with personnel, communicate effectively with others, and keep various influencers and decision-makers in the loop—you know, those folks that could make or break your success. You have also likely had to consider the cost of what you are doing, what equipment you require, deadlines and quality standards, and how to bring it all together to get the job done. You faced challenges head-on, navigated these dynamics, avoided the land mines, developed leadership skills, and ultimately persevered. Because of that, you’re armed with the qualities in which project management thrives. As we dive into this journey from military service to project management success, remember that every step you’ve taken in uniform has prepared you for this new adventure. You got this!

"Business professional showcasing a virtual representation of team management and organizational resources, emphasizing teamwork and human resource management."

Skills You Have Developed That Give You an Advantage: Discipline, Leadership, and Resilience

Military service demands discipline, not only from day to day but also during high-pressure moments. Being disciplined in such areas as time management, cost management, scope management, and quality management is critical in managing projects well. In the military, you’ve mastered the art of structure and focus. Guess what? Project management thrives on structured planning and meticulous execution, as well as monitoring and controlling all aspects of your work.

From a leadership perspective, you are also in a great place. Leadership is critical for project success; it involves inspiring and influencing others to work together towards a common goal. You have developed the ability to create a sense of ownership and accountability among your team members, allocate resources effectively, build consensus around decisions, foster collaboration across key stakeholders, and motivate your team to get the job done within your customer/client requirements and specifications.

Furthermore, military service has already honed your resilience, adaptability, and ability to remain calm and composed under stress. And let’s not forget the ability to adapt and thrive in any situation. In your project management career, you must be able to think quickly and make decisions on the fly. Your experience in the military has prepared you for this.

"Close-up of a hand pointing towards a vibrant holographic display of project management icons and cognitive processes."

Finding the Right Fit in the PM World

In project management, you are a driver and navigator, delivering successful projects on time, within scope, budget, and quality parameters. It encompasses a wide variety of fields and industries, so it’s essential to determine which career path is best suited for you. The first step is researching the different project management methodologies and their purposes. Identify the industries and types of projects you’re interested in, then learn to recognize the methods most used in those projects or industries. As a veteran, you have a wealth of resources available to you, such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill (Chapter 33)VET TEC, and the DOD SkillBridge Program. Each of these programs provides resources to educate yourself, further prove your technical skills, and demonstrate your expertise to an employer.

Here is a list of several project management positions you can move into, many of which have certifications that validate your experience:

Project Management Institute Logo.

The Project Management Institue is a global project management leader that supports certifications for some of the following positions:

Project Coordinator:

This is often an entry-level position. A project coordinator assists the project manager in administrative tasks, scheduling, and other essential project management functions.

Project Manager (PM):

A Project Manager is responsible for initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing projects. They oversee all aspects of managing a project, ensuring it’s completed on time, in scope, on budget, and within quality parameters.

Program Manager:

While project managers focus on specific projects, program managers oversee a complete portfolio of projects or an entire program aimed at achieving strategic organizational goals.

Portfolio Manager:

This position involves managing a collection of projects and programs to ensure they align with an organization’s overall business goals and strategies.

Project Director or Head of Projects:

This is a more strategic role, overseeing an organization’s entire project management department or function. They ensure the alignment of project outcomes with business objectives.

Project Management Office (PMO) Manager:

This person leads the PMO, which sets and maintains standards for project management within an organization.

Project Scheduler or Planner:

Specializing in scheduling tools and methodologies, these individuals ensure project timelines are set, tracked, and adhered to.

Risk Manager:

This role focuses on identifying, assessing, and managing risks that might threaten the successful completion of a project.

Resource Manager:

This position ensures that resources (like personnel, equipment, and materials) are available and allocated correctly across projects.

Change Manager:

Responsible for ensuring that any changes to the project (like scope or requirements changes) are appropriately managed and communicated.

Stakeholder Manager or Communication Manager:

This role ensures clear communication between the project team and external stakeholders, ensuring all parties are informed and aligned.

ASQ Logo.

The American Society for Quality is the premier organization for quality expertise:

Quality Manager:

Concentrating on the quality aspects of the project, this role ensures that the deliverables meet the set standards and undergo necessary testing.

Scrum Alliance logo.

Whereas, the Scrum Alliance, which began in 2001 to support the Agile method, has multiple certifications, such as:

Certified Scrum Master:

In organizations that use Agile methodologies, these roles are essential. They guide teams in the principles and practices of Agile and Scrum.

Certified Scrum Product Owner:

This role is responsible for the product vision, managing customer expectations, and ensuring the development team understands what needs to be built.

Professional Scrum Developer:

This role focuses on programming and coding tasks, often working with a project team to develop software solutions.

"A person's hand interacting with a holographic interface highlighting various project management aspects such as strategy, quality, and leadership."

Crafting Your Transition Strategy

Transitioning isn’t about discarding your military past – it’s about leveraging it to create your project management future. Start by translating your military experiences into the language used by project managers. Remember that time you identified a problem and figured out a solution? That’s risk management. The moments you tackled challenges? Problem-solving. Communicating with various people who are interested in the work you are doing? That’s stakeholder management. Ultimately, crafting your resume and telling your story during interviews is like connecting the dots between your military feats and your project management skills and potential.

As you start to incorporate more project management language, you should turn to obtaining an industry-standard certification to enhance your skill set and validate your experience. Certifications such as the Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), Project Management Institue-Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)Disciplined Agile Scrum Master (DASM), or Certified Scrum Master (CSM), depending on the position that interests you. Several organizations offer these certifications, and many of these certifications have benefits for veterans, like tuition reductions or fee waivers.

If you are positioned for it, another excellent option to build your knowledge is to pursue a Master of Project Management accredited by the Project Management Institute’s Global Accreditation Center (GAC). Depending on the program, it will propel you toward becoming a Project Leader, ready to move into senior executive roles.

Regardless of the certification or degree, I recommend engaging in professional networking and attending industry conferences and events, which offer opportunities to learn and understand project management methodologies and gain exposure to different industries. To do so, you should connect with your local Project Management Institute chapter.

Your strategy isn’t just a blueprint – it is your map to success. Think of it in terms of ends, ways, and means. Say, for example, you are currently a motor pool Senior Noncommissioned Officer and want to move into a Project Manager role within the auto industry after you retire. Well, I recommend going to Indeed or various auto manufacturing sites and finding out the requirements companies are looking for in a new hire. Then, align your qualifications to the need. If it requires an undergraduate degree and you don’t have one, get started early and use your Post-9/11 GI Bill, or when you retire, leverage the VA’s Veteran’s Readiness & Employment (VR&E) program if you qualify. If the position requires a PMP, I recommend taking some form of project management training or prep course, particularly one that has your interest in mind, knows where you are coming from, has a money-back guarantee, and also fits within your schedule. By taking these simple steps, you are positioning yourself to transition with greater ease.

"Silhouette of an individual ascending steps towards an urban skyline, symbolizing career progression and strategic vision in project management."

Mission Success

Remember that your military-to-project management transition isn’t just a change – it’s a success in the making. With your discipline, leadership, resilience, and adaptability, you’re already armed with the qualities that project management champions. Your journey is a tribute to your spirit of growth and determination. By embracing your military advantage, discovering your fit for project management opportunities, and navigating the transition with a warrior’s mindset, you’re poised to survive and thrive in project management.

Are you ready to embark on this epic transition? The mission from military service to project management success is your calling – your chance to rise, make an impact, and create a legacy. With your military background as your foundation and your determination as your fuel, you’re set to conquer new horizons and inspire others. So, let’s move forward with courage, embrace the challenge, and march toward mission success!

References:

PMI (2021). Talent Gap: Ten-Year Employment Trends, Costs, and Global Implications. https://www.pmi.org/learning/careers/talent-gap-2021.

Nieto-Rodriguez, A., & Viana Vargas, R. (2023). How AI will transform project management. Harvard Business Reviewhttps://hbr.org/2023/02/how-ai-will-transform-project-management.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2023, August 25). Transition Assistance Program (TAP)https://www.benefits.va.gov/transition/tap.asp#:~:text=About%20250%2C000%20Service%20members%20transition,from%20military%20to%20civilian%20life.

Disclaimer: “The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.” 

About the author: Dr. Michael J. Shick, MSPM, PMP, CSM, founder of ROSEMET, is a combat-wounded warrior and retired senior military officer turned esteemed academic and project management expert. Holding a doctorate from Creighton University and serving as an Assistant Professor at Western Carolina University, Dr. Shick’s dedication goes beyond credentials, as he commits to empowering individuals and organizations toward project excellence. With an extensive military, academic, and project leadership background, he epitomizes resilience, expertise, and a steadfast devotion to fostering growth and success in others.

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