How to Become a Freelance Project Manager

Last updated: Jun 16, 2020

If you’re a project manager, or planning to become one, chances are your future employment will include independent contract work. According to a study published in January 2020 by Business Talent Group, project management is the top gig-worker skill employers are seeking. Here’s why now is a great time to move into independent contract work and get in on the outsourcing boom to become a freelance project manager

male employee exploring freelance project manager opportunities on a computer

Why is Freelance Project Management Suddenly the Hot Job?

Even before the pandemic lockdown, an estimated 36 percent of American workers were involved in the gig economy. More to the point, in 2017, long before the coronavirus, 3 out of 4 organizations hired project managers on a freelance basis, according to an Arras People global survey. With remote work a necessity — a temporary trend many analysts expect will become permanent for many — the ratio of contract employees has increased. Already riding that gig wave, project managers have been able to capitalize on the growing need for offsite consultancy and project-based contract work.

 

Here’s why companies see the wisdom in hiring freelance project managers:

  • Lower costs: You might end up making more per hour as a contract worker, but the costs for the hiring company are significantly lower without having to absorb the expense of benefits or maintain your in-office setup.
  • Higher output: Working as your own boss from your home office means you’re often more productive and efficient than you would be as a team member in a noisy row of desks with a manager dictating your schedule.
  • Creative results: Unencumbered by standard operating procedure, top freelance project managers are known for coming up with innovative solutions for companies’ challenging projects.
  • Talent gap: Companies need project managers, staff or freelance, and they’ll do what it takes to hire them. In fact, a 2019 Randstad Sourceright report indicated that up to 25 percent of employers planned to convert full-time staff positions to roles for independent workers, another indication that the freelance market for project managers looks bright.

 

What’s the Upside of Becoming a Freelance Project Manager?

Apart from robust hiring of contract project managers, there’s a lot in it for you when you pursue the freelance path.

  • You can pick and choose what kinds of projects you want to take on.
  • You’re the boss, in charge of your own schedule.
  • You set your own fees, often making more than you would on staff (according to Glassdoor, the average base pay for project management consultants is $100,235 per year; ZipRecruiter posts an average $94,625 annual salary for freelance project managers).
  • You can expand your expertise, working with many different companies and industries (or flex your specialist muscles, gaining field-specific skills you can market as your brand, such as IT project manager).

 

What’s the Downside?

As with any freelance career, working as an independent project manager has its challenges.

  • You won’t have job security, and you will have the stress (or excitement, depending on how you look at it) of landing the next contract as soon as you engage with your current one.
  • You will shoulder all of the tax and accounting burdens – you’ll be running your own business, after all.
  • You won’t receive benefits such as paid vacation, health insurance, or sick leave.
  • You won’t have a salary, which could be a good thing if you earn more as a freelancer, but it can also be a stressful reality if you have fixed expenses like a mortgage and no invoices outstanding.

female employee on phone inquiring about freelance project manager jobs

Where Do Freelance Project Managers Find Gigs?

Finding work is the first project you’ll manage as a freelancer. And it never ends. But going solo is easier if you follow these four gig-hunting tips:

  1. Start with who you know: Recruiters often fill spots with candidates with whom they’ve worked or know by reputation. Get your name out there via social networks, colleagues, and conferences.
  2. Market your skills: Build your brand as an expert in the areas you love and have the highest competence in, such as “triage” management for emergency recovery situations or IT digital transformations or data security projects. Work LinkedIn like a genius. Go live with a website highlighting your best projects.   
  3. Get on the radar of an agency: Build a relationship with a recruiter who specializes in placing project managers. Google your specialty (such as “UX project manager recruiters” or “job leads for construction project managers”) to find search firms. The right one is out there.
  4. Tap into freelance job boards: Especially if you’re new to the field, you may need to start small and build your portfolio with contract job opportunities you find online.

 

Before you jump in, know that agencies and job sites use an array of terms, so familiarize yourself with the best way to describe yourself to potential clients. 

  • Freelancer: You work for yourself rather than for a company (self-employed).
  • Contract worker/contractor: You work as a temporary project manager with a contract, not as a permanent staffer.
  • Independent contractor: Your terms are usually stipulated by a contract with another company; this affects your taxes, so read contracts carefully and get to know the IRS 1099 or W-9 forms.
  • Contract consultant: You’re hired for a temporary and specific role consulting with the staff about a project, not actually executing the project.
  • Contract-to-hire: You begin as a freelancer or independent contractor with the goal of becoming a staff employee.

female contract worker working on her freelance project manager duties

Earn Project Management Certification from USF

Central to your strategy as you transition (or dive headlong) into freelance project management work is to establish your credentials and highlight your skill set. USF’s project management courses will provide you the knowledge to be an expert in project management, setting you up to ace the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exam. Earning this distinction provides immediate and lasting impact on your project management career. It looks supercool on your résumé and could be the clincher to get you a call-back for your first (or 50th) project management gig.  

 

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