If you’ve ever considered entering a career in management of any kind, you’ve probably come across job descriptions referencing “project management” and “operations management” in your research.
At first glance, these jobs may seem deceivingly similar. Both positions support the business functions by planning, coordinating, and executing tasks in pursuit of an organizational goal. There are, though, some very important, fundamental differences between the two careers.
Below, we explore these differences so that you have all of the information that you need to determine which career makes the most sense for you—and so that you can form a plan to get there.
What is a Project Manager?
At a high level, a project manager is responsible for planning, executing, and closing projects. Typically, these projects have a set start and end date, with a defined scope and set of resources that must be allocated to bring about project completion. It is the job of the project manager to coordinate these resources in order to execute the tasks needed to complete the project within time and budget constraints.
What is an Operations Manager?
An operations manager is in charge of making sure that a business is running as smoothly and efficiently as possible. They are a key part of any management team, as they oversee the various departments in a company to help them coordinate with one another to work towards shared business goals.
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How Do Project Management and Operations Management Differ?
The key difference between these roles comes down to the definition of a project versus operations.
The Project Management Institute, better known as PMI, defines a project as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. Business operations, on the other hand, are ongoing activities that produce long-term, repetitive outputs, such as manufacturing products or supplying services.
Therefore, an operations manager’s role is ongoing, whereas a project manager’s role—in regards to a specific project—is temporary in nature.
Other key differences between the two positions are focused around specific responsibilities, skills, and education required for success.
Roles and Responsibilities
As part of their everyday roles and responsibilities, project managers are expected to:
- Manage teams
- Plan and define projects
- Coordinate and oversee the execution of projects
- Manage the schedule
- Monitor the budget
- Measure and report progress
The responsibilities of operations managers often include, but are not limited to:
- Overseeing daily operations
- Identifying and addressing problems and opportunities
- Managing the budgeting, planning, reporting, and auditing
- Ensuring regulatory compliance
- Developing operational policies and procedures
Job Growth and Salary
As with any profession, salary varies substantially depending on a number of factors, such as how much experience you have, where in the country you are employed, and the industry that you work in.
On average, however, project managers typically earn between $47,000 and $110,000 annually, with the national average salary falling at $72,675 per year. Operations managers, meanwhile, can earn between $40,000 and $100,000 per year depending on their location and the industry in which they work. The national average salary for operations managers across all industries is $63,925 annually.
Project managers are compensated well for the crucial role they play in meeting business objectives. As project managers move through their careers, their skills become more developed with each project that is completed. As such, experienced project managers are highly sought after and are often offered higher wages in return for their expertise. Like project management professionals, operations managers can expect their compensation to increase as they gain more experience and fine-tune their skills throughout their careers.
The demand for skilled project managers is on the rise as various industries are realizing the value that these professionals bring to organizations. In fact, PMI projects that more than 2.2 million project management jobs will be added to the workforce annually through 2027. With more businesses than ever before looking to add project managers to their teams, it is an opportune time to enter the growing field. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that job opportunities for general and operations managers are expected to increase at a rate of seven percent from 2014-2024. This rate is about average in comparison to all other occupations in the United States.
In order to be effective, project managers and operations managers must both have certain essential skills. While the list below is by no means exhaustive, it accurately reflects the skills that are necessary for both positions:
- Effective communication between team members, key stakeholders, vendors, and everyone else involved in a project or operation
- Time management to keep tasks and activities on track and according to schedule
- Leadership skills to effectively manage a team and offer coaching or motivation when required
- Organizational acumen to keep track of all of the various complex moving pieces involved in a project or ongoing operations of a business
- Problem solving and adaptability required to be flexible and make adjustments as necessary
- Technical expertise in your specific domain or industry, to help anticipate problems and solutions before they occur
Although the skills required for each of these positions are similar and overlap, the application of these skills is where the differences lie. It is also important to remember the skills required for a specific role will naturally depend on the industry and business in which a project or operations manager is working.
There are many ways to break into the field of project management. In general, most employers will look for a bachelor’s degree in project management or other business-related fields for entry-level positions.
Many people seeking to become a project manager will choose to earn a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI). Becoming PMP certified shows potential employers that you are well-versed in the standardized practices of project management and are knowledgeable in the key areas of the discipline.
Oftentimes, project managers will also choose to pursue an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Project Management, in order to demonstrate mastery of the concepts involved in the field and gain additional experience that can help them advance their careers.
Christopher Bolick, assistant academic specialist for the Master of Science in Project Management program at Northeastern University, encourages potential students to find a program that leverages faculty who work in the industry:
“A great benefit of our program is that our courses are taught by experienced project management professionals who have a minimum of ten years of practitioner experience in addition to their professional project management certification (PMP). This allows for a broad and dynamic representation of the industry as well as methodology exposure in the classroom for our students.”
He also notes, “Northeastern focuses on experiential learning by allowing opportunities for learners with varying degrees of work experience to practice their knowledge globally and collaboratively. In its simplest terms, experiential learning offers students the opportunity to acquire knowledge through real-world experience, reflective observation, and active experimentation in the classroom.”
The process of becoming an operations manager is similar to becoming a project manager in many ways. To enter the field, most employers require a bachelor’s degree in business management or a similar field (at a minimum). As with project management, gaining real-world experience is just as important for standing out from the competition when it comes to job hunting. For those looking to climb to managerial positions, graduate degrees are often preferred. For example, most Chief Operating Officers, or COOs, hold a Master’s in Business Administration, or even a PhD.
How are Project Management and Operations Management Similar?
Given the differences in project management and operations management, it is also important to consider the areas in which they overlap.
Bolick provides some insight: “There are instances where the role of a project manager will intersect with operations management. First, when a need arises to significantly change a component of business operations then the change will often be managed as a project. Once the project has delivered the change, operations will resume focus on maintaining, operating, and supporting the products or services produced as a result of the project. Second, project managers and operations often collaborate at a project’s closeout phase to begin transitioning responsibility of any ongoing maintenance and operations associated with the deliverable or service.”
When deciding which career you want to pursue, it is important to make sure that your desired profession aligns with your personal goals. If you think a career in project management is right for you, consider the steps you can take to break into the field and set yourself apart from the competition.