What Is a Program Manager? And How to Become One

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Find out what program managers do, key skills needed for the job, what kind of salary to expect, and ways to pursue this career.

[Featured image] A program manager stands in a warehouse waiting for the arrival of a new product delivery.

Program managers are communicative and reliable professionals who direct programs that may include multiple projects and moving parts. Program managers are organized, strategic, and motivational leaders who work in a variety of industries, from business to government to non-profit.

People who want to become program managers are attracted to the challenge and reward of overseeing a program from start to finish. Programs might be seasonal, like a summer internship recruitment program that occurs every spring semester, or they might endure several years of grant funding or revenue.

Let's dive into what a program manager is and how to become one.

What is a program manager? 

A program manager oversees the coordination and monitoring of projects and the employees that run them. They lead programs from start to finish to help companies meet organizational goals. Programs may consist of several projects, but they can also be ongoing. Program managers develop strategies, evaluate the performance of project teams, keep teams organized, and allocate budgets and resources across projects.

Program managers may oversee several different teams, all working toward different goals and separate work schedules. They are in charge of tracking project progress, aligning project managers, and strategizing program outcomes.

The specific duties of a program manager will depend on the workplace. For instance, one might oversee the development of a new product. In that case, a program manager would identify customer needs, research the market, and facilitate the design and manufacturing of the product. At another company, a program manager might be responsible for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives within an organization. This could involve revamping the company's existing mission and developing a system for employee feedback.

What is a program?

So, what constitutes a program? Because a "program" can mean something different across industries, here are a few examples.

• Product launch

• Non-profit fundraising initiative

• Store opening

• DEI initiative

• Marketing plan

• Improving customer service


What does a program manager do?

Duties for program managers vary according to the specific workplace and industry they work in. These are some common responsibilities for program managers:

  • Identifying organizational needs and objectives

  • Creating and maintaining a program budget

  • Conducting program risk assessment

  • Assigning and supervising a team

  • Collaborating with various department leads

  • Monitoring and evaluating a program's success

  • Delivering progress reports and presentations

Program vs. project management: What's the difference?

A project manager is in charge of a specific project within an organization, while a program manager is responsible for achieving broader strategic goals and objectives. A program manager might be in charge of a large project or several small-scale projects. Projects usually have specific deadlines, but the end dates for programs may be more flexible, or there may be no end date at all if it is an ongoing program or initiative.

Read more: How to Become a Project Manager: 6 Steps


Skills needed for program managers

Program management involves coordination, supervision, strategic planning, and more. Because this is such an active job, program managers wear a lot of hats and need to be ready to lead and engage with teams and stakeholders. Key skills include:

Program manager salary and job outlook

As a program manager, you can expect an average annual salary of about $98,017. Based on pay estimates for program manager positions at various companies, you're likely to make more if you work for a tech firm [2]. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), management jobs are expected to increase by about 883,900 from 2021 to 2031 [1]. This is a growth rate of 8 percent, which is faster than average compared to other types of jobs. 

Industries where program managers work

Program managers are needed in a variety of industries, from retail and tech to health care and finance. In addition to the private sector, government agencies, and non-profit organizations also need program managers. The skills you'll learn as a program manager are transferable across industries and job roles.


How to become a program manager

While there is no set path to becoming a program manager, these steps are a guide to a more conventional career path.

1. Earn your bachelor’s degree. 

If you're considering a career as a program manager, it helps to pursue a bachelor's degree. Although employers in some industries require degrees in specific areas like engineering or environmental science, good general fields of study include:

Read more: What Is a Bachelor’s Degree? Requirements, Costs, and More

2. Earn a certification.

Professional certificates offer the knowledge you need to start your career or switch from another one (if you already have a bachelor's degree). Here are some to consider:

  • Program Management: A two-day course offered by American Management Association for experienced project managers, program managers, or other employees involved with programs. Topics include program lifecycle components and phases, strategic program management, and how to get and keep stakeholders.

  • Certificate in Program Management: A five-month course from the University of Washington Professional & Continuing Education. Topics covered include the different stages of programs, measurement and maintenance of program benefits, and how to engage stakeholders.

  • Google Project Management Professional Certificate: There are many cross-over skills between project management and program management. Knowing how to manage a project and lead teams to complete or implement a program according to target goals requires pretty much the same skill set. The Google Project Management Professional Certificate can typically be completed in six months or less.

3. Gain work experience.

Many program managers start as project managers. You may want to get your foot in the door this way and move your way up the ladder. Ideas for getting project management experience include:

  • Volunteering to manage community projects like fundraising events or cleanup days

  • Applying for an internship as a project management assistant

  • Looking for opportunities to serve on nonprofit boards in your community

  • Asking to sit in on project management meetings at work

  • Launching your own small projects at work, like a before-work yoga class or walking club

  • Taking on or leading new initiatives on your current team at work

Read more: What Is a Project Manager? A Career Guide

Expand your network

Networking is a great way to connect with people in an industry or role that you admire and want to work in. Building relationships and cultivating a network of individuals to whom you can turn for informational interviews or even find a mentor is time well spent.

Read more: What Is Networking? How to Grow Your Network


4. Consider pursuing a graduate degree.

If you're hoping to move swiftly up the career ladder in program management, an advanced degree might help. You may want to consider an MBA or a master's in management and leadership. After obtaining your bachelor's degree, you can expect to put in another two years of study to earn a master's degree. 

Read more: Master's Degrees Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Start learning project management today

Take a project management course to get a better feel for program management. The University of Virginia offers Fundamentals of Project Planning and Management, a short eight-hour course that explains how to plan and run projects effectively.

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Management Occupations, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/home.htm." Accessed June 8, 2023.

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