From Project Coordinator to Project Manager: The Land Solutions PM Apprentice Program develops Atwell leaders from within

For many the AEC industry, landing a position as a Project Coordinator (PC) or Associate Project Manager (APM) is a pivotal step towards the highly coveted role of Project Manager (PM). PCs and APMs are typically the right-hand people to PMs, taking direction from them and gathering information from various groups to keep their team updated on the pulse of the project.

Within Atwell’s Land Solutions team, PC and APM responsibilities are more clear-cut, while the responsibilities and expectations of PMs can vary greatly, with a learning curve that can take longer than new PMs expect. In the realm of the Right of Way industry, a Land Solutions PM is the lead in managing the overall project, in addition to overseeing land agents; identifying project targets and milestones; communicating progress from the field to the client; and developing the project scope, budget, and schedule. It can be challenging for new PMs to adjust to wearing so many different hats while taking on the full responsibility of managing.

The need to provide PCs and APMs with more structured guidance, mentorship, and recognition was what led Deb Wilson, VP of Land and Right of Way Solutions at Atwell, to spearhead the launch of the PM Apprentice Program within her team.

“I wanted to give our PCs and APMs the tools they needed to be successful and advance in their careers,” she expressed. “This means training them, mentoring them, and giving them a guide based on their professional aspirations and talents.”

Wilson wanted a program that gave more visibility to people in mid-career roles that don’t often get spotlighted. “Our PCs, APMs, and PMs need to know that we see them and want to encourage their career growth,” Wilson stated. This became the spark to ignite the development of the PM Apprentice Program.

A program structure tailored for each individual’s needs and goals

PCs who are identified by leaders as good candidates for future PMs are referred to the PM Apprentice Program. If they accept, they are then given a survey to indicate factors that would best serve their career growth. The questions asked include: What experiences would you like more exposure to? What do you need more training in? What is a peer doing that you currently don’t have the opportunity to do, but would like to learn?

The program starts with a kick-off agenda that brings all the participants together, giving them a chance to connect with others going through the program. The program is divided into three phases with skills, teachings, and learning experiences that build upon each other. Each phase is broken down into the skills you need within a timeline. Members work with a direct facilitator to curate a plan for accomplishing each phase. Each member gets a program plan tailored to their goals as well as the skills they’ll need to be a successful PM.

Since the program is customized to the needs, goals, and experiences of each member, everyone’s completion time is different. Some with more career experience may need a year, while others could need the full three years.

The first graduates recount the program’s influence on their PM careers

Since the program’s launch in early 2022, three employees have already graduated. Andrew Mullineaux and Sara Olwin started out as PCs on Wilson’s team, and after 11 months in the PM Apprentice Program, they were promoted to PMs at Atwell. Jason McDarby recently graduated in January after starting at Atwell in March 2023 as an APM.

“There is some ‘shock value’ in moving from the PC to PM position,” said Mullineaux, who was a title abstractor in Oil & Gas before joining Atwell. “As a PC, you have a buffer between you and the client. As a PM, that safety net is gone. You are on the front lines, making decisions, and telling others what to do, which is a big leap. The program helped us gain exposure to this beforehand so that we could start developing our management style around the expectations of a PM.”

Olwin appreciated the program’s structure and that leaders cared about PCs’ career progression.

“It’s easy to feel like a ‘hidden hero’ as a PC, doing your work but not always receiving accolades,” said Olwin, who has a background in various land support positions. “PCs carry a heavy load, and the program helps to take off the invisibility cloak around the role. It focused on our promotion track, our improvement, and our success. It was nice to be uplifted by our managers and directors.”

McDarby recalled how as an APM, he experienced a change in leadership and found himself assuming many PM duties. “The program really helped me see projects through, and it gave me the space to take initiative and get out of my comfort zone,” he stated.

The three recounted how the program set them up for success with regular on-the-job training, program update calls, courses from the International Right of Way Association (IRWA) to count towards certification, literature suggestions, and self-focused tasks like learning specific skills from various PMs in the company.

The PM Apprentice Program supports a variety of backgrounds and experiences

Jonathan Nye, Tykia Long, and Kenneth Maurer are current PM apprentices in the program. Some have been at Atwell for less than a year; some started as PCs; and some came with management experience from other industries. All are currently APMs on track to graduate as PMs.

For Nye, the PM Apprentice Program is helpful in more ways than just technical knowledge. “I held a PM position in a previous company in another industry, but we did things differently there,” he explained. “In this program, I’ve learned a lot about Atwell’s processes for project management, in an environment that is incredibly supportive—you’re not just left out to dry.”

Long agrees with the supportive nature of the program. She loves how the program has improved her relationships with her colleagues. “I was initially shy and reserved, but the program has built-in interactions that have helped me grow my communications skills,” Long says. “I’m also growing more confident being in front of clients, leading meetings, and being the face of a project.” Long’s participation is also an example of how well the program can be customized. Her work on Wilson’s team is more financially driven and includes compensating landowners for their involvement on projects.

Maurer, who was an attorney by education and trade before Atwell, appreciates that the program is suited for people taking both traditional and nontraditional paths, like Long and himself. “There were no strict barriers of what could or couldn’t be done,” he remarks. “It’s almost like, ‘See a need, fill a need.’ Being able to use my background to oversee and support attorney negotiations with landowners and their attorneys has been great for my confidence. I feel like I’m on the right path now.”

The beginning of many more development programs throughout Atwell

While the PM Apprentice Program is currently a pilot program, there are a number of development-style programs in place or in line to be launched in 2024.

Rodney Williams, Atwell’s Director of Talent Management, says that company leaders and the Talent Management department are proud of the progress of the PM Apprentice Program, which they supported through planning, development, and monthly check-ins with members.

“Ideally, we want an apprentice program for the whole firm as a corporate initiative,” Williams states, “and we are currently developing various ambassador, mentorship, and training programs for all levels of employment.”

Some of these initiatives include training programs for new and potential leaders; a program for new hires that pairs them with an “Atwell Ambassador” who helps them learn the ropes to all things Atwell for six months and then they’re assigned a mentor for more career development; and customizing a learning management system that will serve as a one-stop shop for all training and development.

For now, Wilson’s team is able to engage in a highly focused, customized, intentional management development program that not only exposes PCs and APMs to applicable and useful PM experience, but has also given these Atwell employees a huge boost in their confidence, professional relationships, and career trajectory.

The PM Program leaves a lasting impression as participants offer insight for prospective members

Collectively, graduates and current participants say the most valuable lessons they’ve learned are gaining the drive, confidence, and focus to:

– Learn how to be your own champion so you don’t get lost or buried in the work

– Take ownership and responsibility

– Step out of your comfort zone and aim higher

“It’s not a program where you move through all 20 steps and then ‘poof!’, there’s a magic wand and you’re a PM now,” clarified Maurer. “There are many variables, and we still need to fulfill the needs of the company. It’s more like a script that’s open to our interpretation to execute, but it all translates into growing into successful Project Managers.”

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