Project managers are tasked with guiding teams to complete projects on time and within budget, which means they must possess a broad range of project management skills, both technical and “soft” (i.e., communication, empathy, etc.). While many project managers work full-time for a company, others decide to become freelancers or contractors, which demands some additional skills.
In short, freelance project managers must be adaptable, and depending on how they structure their working lives, they must mind things like scheduling, invoicing and taxes that full-time employees don’t really need to think about. Let’s break down the skills, education, salary, and career progression of a freelance project manager.
What Does a Project Manager Do?
The daily tasks of a project manager vary depending on the specific project. Those just starting out their project management career might find themselves assisting a senior project manager, and/or running projects that are very limited in scope. On the other end of the spectrum, mature project managers might have to coordinate between multiple teams to produce strategically critical projects for a major company.
Whatever a project manager’s current role, some everyday project management duties include:
- Planning: The project manager will create a project plan that outlines the goals, objectives, tasks, and timeline for the project. This is the bedrock a project operates on, so planning is critical for PMs.
- Building and managing the team: The project manager will recruit, hire, and train the team members working on the project. They will also manage the team and ensure everyone works together effectively.
- Communicating with stakeholders: The project manager communicates regularly with the project stakeholders, including the client, the project team, and other interested parties (which can demand masterful soft skills to deal with everyone’s individual needs and challenges). They need to keep everyone updated on the project's progress and address any concerns that may arise.
- Monitoring and controlling the project: The project manager needs to monitor progress to ensure the project is on track. They will also need to take corrective action if the project starts to go off track to help the project finish on time.
- Resolving problems: The project manager must be prepared to resolve any issues during the project. This may involve communicating with stakeholders, brainstorming solutions, and making changes to the project plan.
- Contract negotiation: If the project involves external vendors, the project manager may need to negotiate contracts with these vendors.
- Managing budgets: The project manager must track the budget and ensure it is not exceeded.
- Reporting to management: The project manager must notify management of the progress and status to management.
If you think that’s a long and complicated list of demands, you’re right. According to Lightcast (formerly Emsi Burning Glass), which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, here are the project manager skills pop up most often in job postings:
- Project Management
- Communication Skills
- Organizational Skills
- Microsoft Office
- Microsoft Excel
- Project Planning and Development Skills
How can you learn these skills? Do freelance project managers need certifications to prove their abilities to a potential employer?
How Can I Learn to Become a Project Manager?
Many educational institutions offer formal degree programs in project management; however, if you’re making a mid-career shift (or you’re just interested in learning project management skills on your own), there are many venues that will instruct you in the basics (and some advanced concepts), often for free.
Whatever your goals and timeline, start by checking out the Project Management Institute’s free coursework, which includes the basics of project management and Agile/Scrum, business alignment, and much more. The Project Management Institute also offers certifications to prove your abilities to future employers, making it a solid one-stop shop for any aspiring project manager.
EdX also has a nifty breakdown of the online courses in project management offered by various universities, including MIT and the University of Maryland. Coursera has a similar list, and offers access to Google’s Project Management Certificate, which is an ultra-popular way for many project managers (both full-time and freelance) to demonstrate their skills.
Udemy and other online learning portals will instruct you in the basics of project management, and many of those courses are likewise free. Always keep in mind that the education never stops; even when you achieve a certain baseline of knowledge, rapid evolutions within the project management space (as well as your particular industry) will demand that you update your learning.
Do Freelance Project Managers Need Certifications?
That’s an excellent question. Project management certifications demonstrate to a recruiter or hiring manager that you have the skills and experience to succeed in a role. That can help you stand out amidst a crowded field of applicants for a role. However, the current demand for project managers means that companies are willing to overlook a lack of certifications… provided the job applicant can demonstrate they have the background to actually do the job.
For freelance project managers without many contacts or a deep resume, certifications (such as the aforementioned Project Management Certificate from Google) can certainly help. However, they’re not absolutely essential if you can show a portfolio of successful projects.
With all that in mind, here are some popular project management certifications:
- Project Management Professional (PMP): This popular certification is offered by the Project Management Institute. Requirements include a four-year degree, 35 hours of project management education/training or CAPM certification (see below), and three years of leading projects.
- Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM): New to project management? CAPM (also managed by the Project Management Institute) is a way for project-management newbies to validate skills ahead of earning the PMP.
- Certified Project Director: This certification focuses on the more complicated aspects of project management, including budgeting for large projects. It is conducted by the Global Association for Quality Management.
- Certified Project Management Practitioner (CPMP): This certification, overseen by the EC-Council, indexes management skills, including technical abilities.
- Certified ScrumMaster (CSM): Overseen by The Scrum Alliance, this certification covers project managers’ knowledge of Agile, Scrum, and so on.
- Professional Scrum Master (PSM): Overseen by Scrum.org, this certification covers the skills and knowledge of Agile, Scrum, and the role of the Scrum Master. There are three levels of certifications for PSM.
- Google Project Management: This certification is based on six courses, from the foundations of project management to applying project management in real-world contexts. Google also offers an entry-level Foundations of Project Management certificate that breaks down project management lifecycle and methodologies, project management culture, and much more.
What’s the Average Annual Salary for a Project Manager?
The average annual salary for a project manager in the United States is $98,000, according to various sources, including Glassdoor. However, the salary range can vary depending on experience, industry, and location. The salary for freelance PMs will be different, too, as their income depends on the number of clients (and budgets of those clients).
Do Companies Hire Freelance Project Managers?
“Yes, companies frequently hire freelance project managers, especially in industries or businesses with significant project-based work, such as IT, construction, or marketing,” says Teresa Spangler, CEO at Plazabridge Group. “Companies might hire a freelance project manager for various reasons, including a need for specialized expertise, increased workload, or budget constraints that prevent hiring a full-time employee. Freelance project managers offer flexibility and can provide a fresh perspective, making them a valuable asset for many businesses.”
Freelance PM Molly Beran tells Dice, “I think project management can be akin to any gig-type job. Historically, project managers have been full-time employees or even part of a company's Project Management Office (PMO) team. Still, like many things in today's shifting economy, doing gig-style project management assignments offers employers flexibility and can benefit both the organization and the project manager.”
How Can a Freelance Project Manager Find Work?
Even if companies are desperate for freelance project managers, you still need to demonstrate you have the skills and experience necessary to slot into a role. If you’re on the hunt for gigs, you’ll need to do a fair degree of prep work before you can begin applying. Here’s your checklist:
Research your target companies and industry: Start off by researching the kinds of projects launched by companies in your target industry. Based off job ads, news reports, and anything you can find via tech forums and subreddits, you can get a sense of the necessary skills and requirements for project managers in your desired arena. Do your skills align?
Have you maxed everything out? Do you have all possible certifications? Are your resume and online profiles up-to-date? How about your website that breaks down your recent projects? Before applying to any job, make sure you’re putting your best foot forward.
Rely on your network: If you’re jumping into freelance work after years of being a full-time project manager, or even if you’re spent your career up to this point as a different kind of tech professional, you likely have a number of professional contacts. Ask them if they know of any open freelancing positions, or if they can connect you with hiring managers who might be looking in the future.
Customize your resume and portfolio: If you can’t land a freelance gig via your network, you’ll need to find and apply to jobs via job marketplaces and apps. Whatever you do, always make sure to tailor your resume and application materials to the specific position; if you don’t, a hiring manager will likely reject you before you can get to the first interview round.
What’s a Fair Rate for a Freelance Project Manager?
Many potential clients will ask how much you’ll charge for freelance project management services. We queried several industry pros on this and got a varied range. Some felt freelance project managers should work for $35 per hour, while others felt paying freelance PMs a flat fee to incentivize expediency was best.
“Since independent project managers would need to fund their healthcare and market themselves, I think an hourly rate of $125-200 is fair,” Beran says. “I would expect significant regional differences—project managers serving rural clients in Kansas or Missouri probably can't charge as much as project managers serving finance clients in New York City. But I think the industry also plays a role here. For example, IT, healthcare, and finance firms probably have higher budgets than non-profits, so I would encourage people to do regional and industry-specific research when determining a price point.”
But so much depends on your experience, industry, special skills, and more. “The wage for a freelance project manager can vary significantly depending on the industry, project complexity, geographical location, and the individual's experience and qualifications,” adds Spangler. “Ranges we have experienced and paid range from $175/hour to $350/hour for more complex projects. Some fees for more strategic projects may be project-based and managed on a monthly retainer fee.”
What Success Metrics Should Freelance Project Managers Use?
“Success metrics for Project Managers largely depend on the nature of the project and the organization's goals,” Spangler says. “However, some common key performance indicators (KPIs) include:
- Project Completion Time: Measuring whether projects are completed on time. It's a straightforward but crucial metric for any project.
- Budget Management: Tracking the budget spent versus the planned budget can show how effectively resources are managed.
- Quality Measures: This can include various factors depending on the project, sprint cycle successes or delays, customer satisfaction scores (depending on the types of projects), and tracking and reporting on meeting the requirements specified in the project scope.
- Project Objectives: Did the project achieve its original objectives? Measuring overarching measures of the success of the project is essential.
- Stakeholder Satisfaction: Client or stakeholder satisfaction is also a crucial metric. Ensuring that all stakeholders are satisfied with the project outcome is essential.”
The definition of “success” also necessarily varies from company to company, and you’ll want to keep things simple when explaining your past successes to prospective clients. “You can't go wrong with focusing on the basics: what is your on-budget project closure rate?” Beran notes. “What is your on-schedule project closure rate? You may even survey your clients at the end of an engagement and provide their satisfaction data as a metric.”