What Is a Program Manager?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Find out what program managers do, explore key skills needed for the job, learn what kind of salary to expect, and discover 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 help employers meet large organizational goals. Meeting these goals usually requires completing several smaller related projects. Program managers oversee the coordination of projects and the employees that run them. They are involved in developing program strategies, evaluating the performance of project teams, and allocating resources across projects and departments.

The challenge and potential reward attract many people to pursue jobs as program managers. To know if a career as a program manager is right for you, it helps to have more information. Discover what program managers do, learn how much this career pays, and how to become a program manager. 

What do program managers do? 

The specific duties of a program manager depend on the workplace. For instance, one program manager might oversee the development of a new product. Projects involved with this goal might include identifying customer needs, researching the market, designing the product, and manufacturing it.

Another program manager might be responsible for improving customer service within an organization. Projects involved with this goal might include revamping the company's customer service mission, providing customer service training, and developing a system for customer feedback. In both instances, the program manager would oversee all projects and ensure that project managers meet each overall goal.

Program management vs. project management

Defining the role of a program manager helps to distinguish it from that of a project manager. While a project manager is in charge of a specific project within an organization, a program manager is responsible for achieving broad, strategic goals and objectives. Projects usually have specific deadlines, but the end dates for programs may be more flexible, or there may be no end date at all.

Commons tasks

Duties for program managers vary according to the workplace. However, some are generally classified. Tasks common to program managers across many industries include:

  • Identification of organizational needs and objectives

  • Program budget creation and maintenance

  • Program risk assessment

  • Assignment and supervision of project managers

  • Collaboration with various department heads

  • Program evaluation 

  • Delivery of progress reports, both orally and in writing

Key skills

Program management involves various activities, including project coordination, employee supervision, strategic planning, and more. Because this is such an active job, various key skills can benefit program managers. These skills might include:

  • Creativity

  • Leadership

  • Ability to work well as part of a team

  • Ability to work well under pressure

  • Analytical thinking

  • Strategic thinking

  • Oral and written communication skills

  • Organizational skills

  • Customer service

  • Conflict resolution

  • Negotiating skills

Are program managers in demand?

The program management field offers jobs across various industries, from retail and tech to health care. In addition to the private sector, government agencies also need program managers. These include Public Safety and Emergency Management, the Treasury Board, and the Public Health Agency in Canada.

Job outlook

According to the Canadian Occupational Projection System (COPS), management occupations and occupations requiring post-secondary education are expected to constitute 71% of new job openings from 2022 to 2031. The share of jobs requiring post-secondary education and management roles in total employment is projected to rise from 65.7% in 2021 to 66.4% by 2031. [1].

Average salary 

As a program manager, you can expect an average annual salary of about $83,138, according to Glassdoor [2]. However, this can vary greatly depending on your industry and position. Based on pay estimates for program manager positions at various companies, you could make considerably more money if you work for a tech firm.

How to become a program manager

While there is no set path to becoming a program manager, these tips can help. You can get an education, gain valuable work experience, join professional organizations, and earn Professional Certificates. A combination of two or more of these steps could make you an extra-valuable prospect.

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:

  • Business administration

  • Business management

  • Communications

  • Computer science

  • Finance

  • Marketing

Gain work experience.

Since many program managers begin as project managers, starting your career as one is a viable path to transitioning into a program manager role. Ways to gain 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

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 (master's in business administration) or a master's in management and leadership. After obtaining your bachelor's degree, you can expect to study for another two years to earn a master's degree.

Network through professional organizations

Professional organizations can help if you want to network with other professionals or further your career.

Organizations you might want to consider joining include:

• IPMA (International Project Management Association)

• PMAC (Project Management Association of Canada) 

• IASP (International Association for Strategic Planning) 

• ICD (Institute of Corporate Directors) 


Pursue professional certificates

Professional certificates offer the knowledge you may need to advance in your career, and they come in many types. You can find program management certificate courses lasting from two days to two years. Some examples include:

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

  • Become a Program Manager: A 19-class course teaching the skills needed to become a program manager sponsored by LinkedIn. Examples of classes include Leadership Foundations, Organization Communication, and Building High-Performance Teams.

  • 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.

Next Steps

Start by taking one or two project management courses if you want a better feel for program management. The University of Virginia offers Fundamentals of Project Planning and Management on Coursera. This short, eight-hour course explains how to plan and run projects effectively. You don't need any former experience to enroll, and you'll get a shareable certificate when you complete the course.

Article sources


Government of Canada COPS. “Job Openings (2019-2028), https://occupations.esdc.gc.ca/sppc-cops/l.3bd.2t.1ilshtml@-eng.jsp?lid=113&fid=69&lang=en.” Accessed June 20, 2024.

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