Taking On Your First Project Management Job

Here’s what you should be thinking about as you take on more responsibility within your company

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When a motivated plumber wants to take their career to the next level, that typically means they want more responsibility, more pay, and a “management” position.

Whether the company you work for has a clear path for this position or not is irrelevant. This job is always there for the taking regardless of company size and structure. Owners are always looking for someone who wants to take on more responsibility and manage jobs, big or small, because it means more money in their pocket. They also don't mind paying you accordingly for this additional responsibility. While this may take time and patience from both you and your employer, it is well worth the effort for both parties.

So, you are hungry, you want to take the next step, and your boss puts you in charge of a month-long project and gives you the job details. You have a month to prep for the job — while still continuing your regular, everyday work. Now what?

I should start by saying that there is a large gap between what plumbers think is involved in project management and the reality on the ground. Managing jobs is less taxing on you physically and very taxing on you mentally. There is a gravitational weight on your shoulders that wasn't there before and little room to run, hide and blame others for your shortcomings. 

Here are some methods for dealing with being in command of a project.

Plans and contingencies

During the pre-project phase, go over any information you were given — drawings, photos, aerial photos, job reports, work orders, etc. Talk to your colleagues involved in the sale of the project. What job site conditions exist that could be an issue? Will the workers involved need any special clearances, badges, certifications, or unique experience? How long do you think each stage will take?

Make a chart. Do you have all of the necessary equipment, or do you need to rent a few pieces of equipment? From where? For how long? Which local rental companies have the best prices on the equipment you need? How much do they charge for delivery and what is available? What site conditions need to be potentially overcome? Is it a cold-weather job? Is it a hot summer job? Is it a rainy season, and you're working on a large, slippery hill? Where will rental equipment be dropped off and picked up? What material will you need? Will you have it delivered, and what will be your way of processing incoming material?

What safety equipment will you need for each part of the project? Do you have all of it available? What tools will you need to complete the job? For example, can you have job site boxes preloaded and dropped off with available locks and chains for end-of-day closeouts? Where will tools be stored?

What portions of the project require what kind of employees? How many do you need on each phase? What is the labor plan? How long should each phase take? What are the goal dates to get done early with the project? What are the project milestones? Anything not written down won't get accomplished.

All of these details and more need to have plans and contingencies to eliminate downtime and increase productivity. An excellent example of a contingency plan for a small waterworks project we did recently involved a ductile iron job where we utilized a ductile iron cutting chain saw on a time-sensitive project. A contingency plan was put in place in the event the saw broke down mid-job, including available local options for rentals, backup chains, backup fuel, available parts runners, and on-site chop saws as backups. Even though this is an elementary example, a good project manager would absorb this potentially major setback as a blip on the radar.

General leadership

Aside from detailed planning, good project management comes with good old-fashioned leadership skills. Ruling with an iron fist doesn't work. This isn't the time to turn into a brutal dictator and pummel subordinates into submitting to your plan. It is the time to be more of a professional than everyone you run into.

What does an authentic professional look like on a job site? It starts with the basics, like paying attention to details. Show up early every day and be the last one to leave. Have a game plan meeting before the project begins and give everyone your intent on the project. The project manager’s intent is essential because it gives everyone a general direction of what you are trying to accomplish. When faced with a decision, your people make a better-informed decision because they know the end goal.

Check in with your people every day and ask them if they need anything. Make sure you stay ahead of them with material to eliminate downtime. If someone has a better way to deal with an adverse condition, have an open mind and be willing to accept any ideas that will help the job at hand. Give easy-to-understand and straightforward directions to people. Micromanagement should be avoided at all costs unless being used as a tactic on a specific individual in private who isn't keeping up with what's required of them. Give subordinates responsibility for portions of the project with minimal oversight to boost morale.

Lastly, keep in mind that no matter how well you do, a leadership vacuum will appear during parts of the project. Something will happen that is odd or wasn’t planned for, and confusion and doubt will occur in everyone’s eyes. This vacuum needs to be filled with your calm but decisive leadership. After considering the situation, the ideas that others have thrown around, and your own intuition, make a decision. Take action, move forward, stay mentally agile, adapt as things progress and adjust as things unveil themselves.

About the Author

Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has over two decades of experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College.



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