Why you should hire an Admin Assistant (and not a Project Manager)

There are two troubling observations I’ve made in the last few weeks by looking at job postings, talking with people at our local chapter meeting of the Project Management Institute (PMI), and talking with people at a few other companies. First, there are a number of people who have the title “Project Manager” when they aren’t doing project management, and second there are companies advertising to hire a project manager when that’s not really what they want.

A good project manager is a scientist who uses math and empirical data, rather than guessing and gut feelings, to schedule every task in a project; figure out what resources will be needed when; analyse the sort of setbacks you might encounter and what should be done about them; and help make sure the project is done on time, on budget, and done completely.

But when a lot of people think about what a project manager does, they look for someone to take the phone calls from the customers, make sure appointments are scheduled and milestones are put on the calendar, remind everyone about those milestones, and generally keep all the paperwork straight.

Those are all incredibly valuable tasks that need to be performed, but that’s not what a project manager does. We seem to have lost sight of how important a good administrative assistant is, and what all they can do, which is bad for both admin assistants and for project managers.

As an aside:

If you’re not sure whether you need an admin assistant or a PM, feel free to drop me a line and I’d be happy to talk about your business and your goals, free of charge.

If a company needs an administrative assistant, but they don’t realize it and try to hire a project manager to fill that role, the company is going to be faced with a number of bad options:

  1. They move forward with trying to hire a certified project manager, but because what they really have in mind is an admin assistant, they struggle to find someone willing to work for the amount they’re paying. Either:
    1. The person accepts the position but keeps looking for something that pays what they expect, and they’ll leave as soon as they can, or
    2. They happily accept the lower pay, and you shouldn’t be surprised when it turns out they’re not as well-qualified as they seemed
  2. The company finds out how much a PM really costs and decides to go ahead and pay that much, maybe because they think good project management will help increase revenue. Maybe it will! But there’s an even greater chance that the company’s current level of business and revenue can’t support the salary of a project manager long-term, leading to heartache for everyone involved
  3. The company settles and hires someone who has some of the qualifications but not all of them. Subsequently, the person is able to perform some of the job but not quite all of it, leaving both the employer and the employee dissatisfied. This is especially common when job descriptions and duties aren’t spelled out clearly, a problem I’m seeing more with startup companies that want their job postings to be exciting, free-form, and fun. When expectations aren’t communicated in full, and then the company settles on an employee and hopes for the best, it leads to trouble
  4. The company throws up its collective hands and decides not to fill the position at all, either because a qualified candidate cannot be found, or no one who is qualified is willing to take the salary offered

I’m mostly seeing this in smaller web development or software development firms, but this problem can be observed in healthcare, construction, and engineering companies. When a company advertises to hire someone, it’s because they’re in pain: they have work that needs done, and not enough people (or not people with the right skills) to do that work. Realizing that you can’t afford to hire a PM, or being unable to find qualified applicants, is incredibly frustrating.

In the majority of the cases I’ve seen, the company doesn’t need, or even want, a project manager. They need an administrative assistant. And they don’t need someone with a degree in business, project management, or human resources. They need someone who has excellent written and oral communication skills, who can keep track of details, and who will take ownership of the company’s tasks to make sure things get done.

Let’s get down to brass tacks:

According to PMI’s 2013 salary survey, project managers in the United States are making between $58,000 and $136,000 per year. The median pay is $108,000, and a lot more people are at the upper end of the range than the lower (it looks like only around 2% are below $70,000 per year).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2012, administrative assistants have a median pay of about $35,000 per year. I know a lot of admin assistants who are between $19,000 and $22,000 per year, and a few executive assistants at around $45,000 per year.

You cannot hire a project manager for $35,000 per year. And for what a good admin assistant does, I don’t think you should pay them only $19,000 per year either.

For what most companies need, they can get an excellent admin assistant for half the pay of a project manager who will take care of their business.

I talk with a lot of owners and employees at smaller companies, and I am increasingly convinced that they need a rock star admin assistant, and also a project management consultant on speed dial who can drop in for a few hours or weeks, provide the analysis needed, and then wish them well. A company can pay a project manager’s hourly rate as part of a project expense for a lot less than having a PM on staff.

Project managers are scientists, and a good PM could make the difference between success and failure for your projects. But you need to know when and how to employ one. If you’re not sure whether you need an admin assistant or a PM, feel free to drop me a line and I’d be happy to talk about your business and your goals, free of charge.

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