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Stuck in a rut? What mid-career professionals and their employers can do to relight the fire

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There has been a lot of talk about the ‘Great Resignation’ post-pandemic. Many employees around the globe retired or switched jobs during lockdown, helping them to re-evaluate the direction of their lives and careers.

According to various surveys, resignation rates were highest among mid-career employees – those aged between 30 and 45. The reasons were simple – they were the employees who felt most dissatisfied with their work.

It is a pattern mirrored in the project profession. According to statistics from the Rebel’s Guide to Project Management website, 41% of project managers with ‘some project management experience’ have considered or seriously considered quitting and finding a different career.

Lack of guidance

“Mid-career project managers are often overlooked. There is a lot of guidance around getting into the job for new entrants and a lot of focus on senior managers,” says project manager Elizabeth Harrin. “But there is not so much for those in the middle doing most of the work.”

She explains that one of the key shortfalls is in the provision of training. “Again, a lot is focused on entrants. Those in mid-career want to learn more, but all that is on offer is at a very basic, strategic and portfolio level. There is a lack of the softer skills that are useful in this type of career time.

“In addition, a lot of project managers tell me that employers just aren’t investing in training in the same way that they used to. If it is not going to lead to certification because you’ve already got one, then employers are less willing to spend money on it.”

Harrin adds that if bosses think you are a ‘safe pair of hands’ then they will keep giving you the same type of work. “Your career goals pale into insignificance,” she says. “You stagnate.”

Senior Programme Manager Mike Wild had similar feelings mid-career. “I was stalling,” he says. “People have great aspirations to go far as a project manager, but you get your basic qualification, do a few projects and think, well, what next? Quite often in mid-career you are known in the business for the role you’ve been doing for the last few years. It is hard to break out and say: I am capable of doing a whole lot more. Not every organisation offers executive development paths.”

Make working life more challenging…

Wild shook himself out of stagnation by taking four main actions, firstly growing his relationship with internal stakeholders.

“A project manager knows how to run a contract and what the processes are, but it can all feel quite functional,” he states. “Well, think about the main stakeholders such as the relationship, operations and engineering managers. Get closer to them and understand projects from their point of view. What can you do to help them? It will give a different dimension to the project.”

His second suggestion is creating public speaking opportunities and/or writing articles on LinkedIn.

“As a mid-level project manager, you don’t realise how much experience you’ve got. Push yourself out of your comfort zone,” Wild says. “A third avenue is mentoring junior project managers. It makes you explain why you do the things you do and gives you a better understanding of yourself.”

The fourth option is to search for a new role in project management.

Galen Low, General Manager at The Digital Project Manager, says: “A fresh start in a new position can offer new responsibilities, a new environment, a new team and new challenges, which can make a huge difference in a resurgence in motivation.”

Harrin agrees that finding a new job can help, but she warns that it has to be carefully considered.  “You have to want to make a significant move to get to the next level. If that is the case then go, but sometimes it is a case of ‘better the devil you know’.”

She agrees with Wild that project professionals need to make their working life more challenging. “You could become the project management guru and set up ‘Lunch and Learn’ sessions for other departments in your organisation,” she suggests.

… or just do nothing?

When it comes to training, Harrin says project professionals need to be more proactive and find their own courses if they are not being offered by their employers. “What do you need to be considered for the next level? A mid-career MBA would be an amazing benefit from an employer,” she says. “Senior managers can also do more to help smooth the path and encourage those at mid-level.”

Career breaks are another option for the stalled project professional. Engineering group Ramboll has a UK Return to Work programme specifically for engineers and project managers who have taken a 12-month career break and want to restart their career.

Harrin has one final option for the stagnating project professional – do nothing. “Mid-career often reflects being in a place where other things take priority, such as childcare. Why should we compare ourselves to others moving at a different pace?” she says. “You can stay current while staying at the same level until it's time for you to move on, up or out. Also, moving up often equates to higher stress, longer hours, more executive demands and there comes a time when you don't want that and are happy to plod along.”

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