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Are you stuck in a project career rut?

Updated: May 9, 2022

Do you feel like you’re stuck in a career rut? “Stuck in a rut” is an idiom for being trapped or doing the same thing for too long. It can happen for many reasons and many of us have experienced it. These are just a few examples of feeling stuck:

  • You have become too specialized in a particular software or discipline; therefore, you’re the “go-to person” for that area

  • You are too valuable in one area of the business to be considered for a different position.

  • There is a perceived gap in a critical skill or knowledge area for you to take on a position of increased responsibility

  • Manager failing to realize your potential and give you that stretch opportunity.

  • There is no bench strength or identified successors for your position in the company, so you may not be considered for other opportunities

Projects are temporary with the goal of completing all the scope to the stakeholders’ expectations. Engineering, procurement, and construction (EPCM) companies bid and are awarded projects by owners to make a profit. Owner companies hire project support positions to oversee EPCM contractors and execute some projects on their own. Both EPCM and Owner companies want project specialists who are experts in their respective functions. Some examples include schedulers, cost engineers, mechanical engineers, and expeditors. Resources that are hired and mobilized to the project are expected to perform the duties for which they were recruited. Due to the fast-paced nature and quantity of project work, it can be difficult to learn a new discipline or additional skills to pursue a career opportunity that may interest you. People want to grow, so this is a morale buster, bad for you, bad for the company, and bad for the project.

If you have not done one already, you should create a Career Development Plan (CDP) as soon as possible. If you have one, you should review and revise it. Your CDP can take the following headings:

  • Name

  • Current Position

  • Targeted Position

  • Current Job Grade

  • Project Start Date

  • Project End Date

  • Total Years of Experience

  • Short Term Aspirations

  • Long Term Aspirations

  • Gap Analysis Performed?

  • Measures of Success or Development Objectives

You may tend to think that the career development plan (CDP) is a pointless waste of time, but the alternative is to have nothing that can keep you on track. To truly achieve the position that you want, you must take initiative to create the CDP and communicate it to others. One of my old managers used to tell our group that you must take your career into your own hands. If you have not developed something to share with others, how do we know what you want? Managers and leaders would assume that you are happy with your current role and responsibilities. Another critical piece of information that is not often included but should accompany the CDP is a gap analysis. A gap analysis is a simple, but powerful tool that you can complete on pretty much anything. For example, you may be a civil engineer who is interested in becoming a project manager. You must know the responsibilities of the Project Manager position and any gaps to get you there. Project manager positions have varying responsibilities in different companies. You can start with your own company and find any information on the expected responsibilities, qualifications, and skills to become a project manager. Another source is job postings from other companies. You can pull individual responsibilities into a master document to perform your gap analysis. Next, objectively rate each item on a scale from 1 (no knowledge or experience) to 5 (excellent knowledge and experience). If you have worked with someone for a long time, you can get them to rate you as well. Determine if there is a perceived gap and where you may need to work on demonstrating your experience to others in that area. Focus on the 1`s, 2`s, and then 3`s to develop the measures of success in your CDP. Maybe there is a training course available to you. Maybe you can find a mentor in the area that you can learn from. Maybe you read a book or go back to school. In short, no one will just give you the opportunity unless you push for it and show that you’re dedicated to completing the objectives to get you there.

Sample Gap Analysis:

In my opinion, the starting and ending point of a project is where you must take a stand with your career. If you are truly burnt out on planning & scheduling, are you willing to accept another 2-year position in it? How will this affect your mental health and career development plan? Sometimes we have no choice due to family and financial considerations. Other times one must take a risk or a lateral move to get the skills necessary to reach your goal. In the project space, I also feel that it sometimes takes luck, connecting with the right people, having an excellent reputation, and timing to get the opportunity to take on something bigger.

We as leaders must do a better job at reviewing our employee’s career development plans and recognizing the indicators of employee burnout. Are we willing to risk losing a high potential employee because they are excellent in one area and meeting a key project need? Am I being greedy by keeping this person in my department since they are so good at what they do? We must be supportive of the development objectives and communicate those opportunities to employees who take the initiative in their career development.

Please reach out with any comments, questions, or personal stories.


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