Project management is a highly sought-after career and many businesses are turning to apprenticeships to bring this skill into their business.
When seeking an apprentice taking their first formal steps into this career path, there are a plethora of factors at play.
Whether you’re choosing to bring in a new apprentice or upskilling a current member of your team, there are key traits that they should display to be successful.
Attention to Detail
This is a highly valued trait in many careers, as we all want to have a colleague on our side that can spot the overlooked mistakes. Within the realms of project management, this can be the difference between a desirable outcome and a disaster!
In an existing colleague, you may see this trait in practice as they regularly catch elements that others have missed. Recognising and nurturing this skill can allow them to use it in a new context, such as project management.
For new hires, this can be slightly harder to assess but you can use experiential questions to understand how they work. If they have a more scattered approach, then this may mean that they would potentially miss important information for a project.
You can also look at the supporting information from their application; a sloppy cover letter or CV riddled with errors can be indicative of a lack of this attention to detail.
As a project management professional, the apprentice may deal with suppliers, budgets and delegating responsibilities.
You want to ensure that this person shows a degree of integrity, which warrants the trust that you place in them. Otherwise, you could be placed in an awkward position where you may challenge the motivation behind certain decisions. You don’t want a project manager to accept a supplier’s offer because of a personal connection or even a bribe.
To gauge their moral compass, you can start with an experiential question probing about a time in which they were faced with an ethical dilemma, then ask them to explain their reasoning. From there, you can also use hypothetical questions in which there’s no real right or wrong to understand their point of view.
These can spark a spirited debate and you might find that even outlandish answers have an interesting thought process behind them.
Classic questions like The Runaway Trolley can kick off this conversation. The premise here is that a trolley car is hurtling along the tracks with no brakes with five passengers trapped inside.
You have the power to divert the trolley away from a dangerous path, though it will come at the expense of hitting a man on the track. Though you could save them by changing the direction of the track so that only one person is hit rather than the five passengers being killed, should you do so?
While you don’t need to put too much stock into the original answer that the candidate gives, you should pay attention to how they justify this. Think about whether the justification for these questions aligns with your organisational values; do you want a person that thinks logically or has a more emotive take?
No matter how well planned a project is, there will always be elements that require a degree of problem solving. If you end up with an apprentice that lacks these skills, then this can frustrate them and stall the project.
Instead, you want someone that can think through a problem and pose solutions before assessing which of these possible outcomes is best. This can also be learned on the job, as they gain confidence and knowledge that makes this possible.
With the right support, these initial skills can be cultivated to real assets with tangible benefits for the business.
To understand the initial talent that the apprentice has, you can ask them to explain a problem from their own life and ask them to talk you through the process of overcoming it. When talking about a hobby or a similar subject that they feel comfortable with, these soft skills can start to shine through.
Ability to Work Under Pressure
When it comes to the crunch time at the end of a project, things can get hectic! During this and other busy sections in the timeline, you need to have a colleague that can keep a level head. If colleagues struggle with pressure, this can lead to personal issues and poor decision making.
Those that are quick to frustration or struggle to be flexible in times of pressure may not make the best project managers. The recruitment process can be a high-pressure situation, so this will give you an indication of how they will perform in the role.
Within the role, you can also help them to improve these skills too. Teaching management techniques and helping the apprentice to understand best practice can mitigate this pressure.
They can also look for areas for concern on the timeline in advance; this kind of forward thinking can reduce this pressure as there are preparations in place.
Being able to present ideas and communicate their worth is key to the project manager role. Using visual aids, like charts and timelines, a project manager should be able to clearly communicate the progress to colleagues and executives alike.
In the early stages of the apprenticeship, you can assess this through their communications with others and how they convey their ideas. You can build on these skills by challenging them to explain things in different ways and at different levels.
While most of us are nervous in the early stages of our careers when it comes to presenting, this is an essential competency to learn. Strong communicators can be nurtured with smaller presentation duties before graduating to full presentations and team updates.
Coaching is invaluable at this time. After each presenting task, you want to feed back on performance and give tips on how to improve. Something as simple as asking the apprentice to slow down when they speak can take their presentations to the next level.
Understanding How to Prioritise and Delegate
For apprentices that have just entered the world of professional work, it can be difficult to delegate and prioritise work naturally. However, those that display these competencies can be easier to manage.
Luckily, the role of a project manager requires a lot of planning, which means that prioritisation and delegation should be taken care of well in advance. Don’t worry if the apprentice doesn’t seem keen on ordering more experienced co-workers around initially; it can take some time before they are comfortable in doing so.
What you’re looking for here is a team player that understands their role within the wider group. If they can understand which aspects are most important and which are secondary, they will be able to reroute them more efficiently.
With strong communication skills, they’ll also be able to explain to co-workers the reasoning behind the delegation. Other members of the team are more likely to respond when they know that they’re taking on other tasks for a purpose.
The very best project managers are enthusiastic about their role and are able to pass this onto others in their team. This kind of infectious good attitude can combat the effect of any negativity and keep the whole team motivated for success.
As Workfront puts it:
“The A. A. Milne character Eeyore is a great example of the kind of personality you would never want to see in a project manager. A small pinch of Tigger’s contagious enthusiasm and another of Pooh’s optimism should form the core of any strong project manager’s personality!”
In the context of this childhood classic, it’s easy to see how attitude impacts the wider team and productivity. If you’re lucky enough to employ a project manager with a great attitude, make sure they're happy in the long term too.
Any dips or uncharacteristic periods of low mood should be addressed if they begin to affect the wider team. There may be a simple solution to the root cause that brings them back to their usual disposition.
A project management apprentice is on the way to a fantastically rewarding career - and selecting the right candidate initially will bring an improved return on investment for the future.