Project managers are the front-line officers of the modern white-collar workforce: They organize projects and then shepherd them to completion, making sure they don’t take too long or run over budget. If you’re in this crucial position, you may rightfully feel that it’s time to have your role acknowledged in the form of improved compensation, either from your current employer or maybe someplace new.
How to know what your PM services and skills are worth? Project manager salaries vary widely by industry and geography, of course. As of early 2022, Glassdoor pegs the average base pay for a PM in the United States at about $89,000; Indeed.com comes up with a similar figure, though it breaks that down into a base pay of around $74,000 and a bonus of about $13,500. Northeastern University notes that substantial pay bumps, on the order of $10,000 or more, can come from the right certifications or an MBA.
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Those are the averages, though. What’s the best way to boost your pay? We spoke to a range of career specialists and coaches, along with folks who’ve worked as project managers or supervised them, to find out how you can charge up your career and boost your salary as a PM. There are several routes to a bigger payday, but most of them involve making sure the work you do and value you bring is visible as well as reliable.
1. Ask (in a smart way)
First thing’s first: Most of the time, you’re not going to have a big raise just handed to you. “In order to get more money, you need to ask for it,” says Tracy Podell, partner and executive coach at Evolution, a professional coaching and leadership development company. “You can’t assume people will see the great job you’re doing and then just automatically give you a raise.”
That doesn’t mean you should just demand a raise on the spur of the moment, of course: Going for a raise involves strategic planning, just as any project you’d manage would. The first thing you need is data. “Research the typical salary range for your role, in your industry and your location,” Podell says. “This gives you a good range for your current market value.”
Perhaps the biggest question is whether you’ll seek a pay boost at your current employer, or decide you look elsewhere. Which you choose will depend on your situation and what internal opportunities are available. “Even a lateral move in the organization chart can come with a salary boost, especially if the company is evaluating both internal and external candidates,” says David Ciccarelli, tech entrepreneur and CEO of Voices.
On the other hand, as Debra Wheatman, president at Careers Done Write, explains, “depending on how long someone has been in a role, they might find that the market has surpassed them in that they are no longer in a competitive range for salary. In this case, switching to a new company is a way to realize a significant boost in pay.”
Even if a permanent bump in salary isn’t on the table at your company, Ciccarelli suggests negotiating a one-time bonus. “If you’re confident in your abilities, propose a pay-for-performance bonus, a monetary sum that is paid upon completion of a project,” he says. “To really demonstrate your ability to complete a project on time, consider a declining bonus for each week or month that it runs over the deadline.”
2. Document your worth
Still, most folks looking for improved pay want it on an ongoing basis. Making that case requires laying the groundwork. “Throughout the year, you should be reviewing milestones and positive achievements with your supervisor,” says Careers Done Write’s Wheatman. “This will ensure that you share the most relevant and worthwhile achievements and help set the tone for the coming annual appraisal period. You should not wait until the annual appraisal period to share this information or ask for a raise. The table should be set before this in terms of accomplishments and a discussion about salary and expectations. Once the appraisal period occurs, the salary pool has already been approved, which is why having conversations in advance is so critical.”
To keep track of how you’re going to sell yourself — to your current boss or a potential new one — you need to document your successes. “My advice is to keep a ‘brag folder’ along the way,” says Mandy Bennett, director of creative development at Scorpion. “By the time your performance is evaluated, your ‘business case’ for the salary boost has already been built.”
Sara Hutchison, an executive resume writer with a background in working with IT professionals, offers some advice on what sort of things you should brag about. “When you can, track in detail times you saved a project from going over on cost or schedule,” she says, “or whenever you added clarity to project that prevented a team from moving in the wrong direction. When your unique expertise or ability to keep everything running smoothly is the reason something went well or exceeded expectations, document that.”
And Elizabeth Harrin, director at RebelsGuideToPM, an education and mentoring site for project managers, says that, when keeping track of your wins, you don’t want people to just take your word for it. “Start collecting all the nice comments from customers — internal and external,” she says. “Ask for testimonials. Get recommendations on your LinkedIn profile. It’s OK to ask for feedback in writing, then file that away to share with your boss as evidence that you are delivering successful projects.”
3. Upskill yourself
In the process of documenting your own performance, you may decide your case for a raise isn’t quite ready. Experts we spoke to suggested concrete steps you can take to raise your profile and help make the case for an internal raise or a new job with a higher salary.
One knock against project managers is that they can be “generalists” who don’t know the nitty-gritty details of how the people they manage do their jobs. This knowledge gap can be particularly problematic in IT. “When you project manage developers, it’s hard to manage without having the knowledge yourself,” says Lovisa Stenbäcken Stjernlöf, identity and governance lead at Advania Sweden. “A way to push your career along could be to learn basic coding along with whatever tools developers are using at your company. In general, it’s hard to project manage something when you don’t know what it is. How are you to know how long time anything takes? You will be dependent on asking your resources, but that’s not sustainable.”
If you’re looking to improve your skills, Stenbäcken Stjernlöf suggests using your strategic knowledge of your field to plan. “Learn an area of IT that is high in demand or more difficult,” she suggests. “For instance, with Salesforce, it’s hard to even find people for us to hire, and the ones out there are very highly paid. Salesforce is also good because they have a great, free learning platform for anyone to use. So as a hobby you can learn Salesforce and then get a much higher paying job.”
Tim Bailey, vice president of Global Consulting at Deltek, points out that there are PM-specific technical skills that can boost your standing. “Become an expert in leading PM software, including MS Project or Deltek Cobra,” he suggests, “and gain experience in project, program, and portfolio management. Developing industry and/or product expertise is also important, as there is high demand for PMs who know specific ERP or professional services automation (PSA) tools. The most valuable PMs possess enough knowledge about the software and can be extremely valuable in the implementation cycles.”
That said, a PM job is very people-oriented; if you don’t have people skills, you need to develop them, fast. “Spreadsheets, tasks, and calendars will always be integral parts of project management,” says Dave Garrett, chief strategy and growth officer at the Project Management Institute (PMI). “But project managers must be able to think with big pictures in mind and contribute to overarching organizational strategy, something that is sure to help them grow in their career and increase their earning power. Developing interpersonal skills — or ‘power skills,’ as we call them at PMI — like collaborative leadership, problem-solving, and empathy, in addition to more technical skills, will make project managers infinitely more hirable.”
Ultimately, this isn’t an either/or question. “To me, PMs are the great translators of big projects,” says Hutchison. “They are the one going between the technical and non-technical teams. Those that can speak ‘both languages,’ as it were, are highly valuable.”
4. Get educated and certified
One way to make clear what skills you’ve gained is to go after relevant certifications — and there are plenty in the project management field. “Certifications are always great and the range of those available has expanded in recent years,” says Hutchison, who is CompTIA Project+ certified herself. “When I have a client that is a PM and I’m working on their resume, it always helps to boost their profile when we can mention a recent cert. Lean Six Sigma, CompTIA Project+, and Google Project Management are all great for those wanting to gain a cert and pivot into a full-time PM role.”
One of the reasons these certifications are valuable is that many have formal training content associated with them. “No single project management job is the same, but I see that some formal training helps as well,” says Devin Schumacher, founder of SERP Co. “Google, for example, has a project management online course certificate in Coursera, where their actual experience from within Google has been condensed and conceptualized into four to five courses. I always endorse that my new project management hires for our company take these modules to serve as a common benchmark.”
That said, a cert — or even a degree — on its own doesn’t necessary tell the whole story, says Nate Tsang, CEO of Wall Street Zen. “You get the biggest salary boost by having a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification or MBA, but only after you’ve racked up real experience working as a PM,” he says. Still, these certs are a good signal to your current (or potential future) employers that “you want to take on more responsibilities or oversee a larger team.”
5. Become an asset
Finally, many of the experts we spoke to said that getting a salary boost requires operating at a higher level and shifting from a tactical mindset to a strategic one.
“Start using your spare time at work to focus less on the execution of the operations you’ve been doing, and more on the high-level strategy of how to make it better,” suggests Brandon Paul Llewellyn, account manager at Parakeeto. “Sometimes, nobody knows the process better than you — you’re the most equipped to find those redundancies or bottlenecks. Expose them, bring them up with your management, and be prepared to offer insight on how to make it better.”
“To bring the most value to your position and boost your pay, it’s critical to understand the project from the overarching business viewpoint,” says Tushar Gadhia, practice director of consulting at Synoptek. “While staying on track with timelines, budgets, and project objectives is a major priority, it’s just as important to keep an eye on the bigger picture and ensure that you’re meeting project expectations that align and play into the company’s overall business goals. Project managers should continuously broaden and evaluate their scope to determine if the business is properly using technology as an enabler while meeting both project needs and organizational objectives.”
If that all sounds a little vague and squishy, here’s one way to think of this is concrete terms: To be paid more, make yourself more valuable. The people who you have to make recognize that value is your boss, and their bosses.
“The PMs who are able to negotiate higher salaries are those who genuinely make the job easy for supervisors like me,” says SERP Co’s Schumacher. “They should unload a lot of the heavy lifting with good organizational skills, anticipate problems instead of waiting for them to explode, and have an agile mindset when bad things happen and derail the projects.” If you can make yourself invaluable like that, you’re well on your way to a raise.
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