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Career Advice Career Development

Experienced Project Manager lands a great job in the NHS

That would be something wouldn’t it?  Well, if you are an experienced project manager, this could happen to you sooner than you think.  There has never been a better time than now to get that project manager job in the NHS.  And with the Government announcing, in the recent budget, an increase of £20.5bn over the next 5 years there has never been a better place for a project manager either.

But how do you get such a good job in the NHS? How many opportunities are there currently? How much can you earn? What are the most important skills needed? What are the different types of employment status in the NHS and, the perennial question, do I really need to have existing NHS experience to bag that great job in the NHS?  The answers to all these questions and more will be found in this article.

Hello, I am Don Tomlinson, Managing Director of both max20 and GoToJobBoard.  max20 is a specialist supplier of contract staff and non-medical consultants to the NHS.  GoToJobBoard is a specialist job board to the NHS and broader healthcare market.  For over 15 years my team and I have supplied all types of specialist skills, including Project Managers, to the NHS and the wider healthcare marketplace.

Believe it or not, there were no project managers working in the NHS about 30 years ago because they simply didn’t need them!  In the 80’s and 90’s the NHS was going through a national phase of outsourcing to the big suppliers and paying a lot of money for the privilege!  Gradually the NHS realised that it would be much better to have their own permanent project managers who would put the NHS first.  Far better to have someone working on your side than on the supplier’s side.  The problem was they could not find enough permanent project managers to manage all the projects being brought back under NHS control.

Over the past 20 years the NHS has tried all sorts of things to upskill its staff.  The NHS University was one of the first short-lived initiatives.  Then came the NHS Institute for Learning, Skills and Innovation.  Then along came the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement and so, on and so on...

There have been some successes over the years and a very interesting development within the NHS is the situation where a clinician or medical specialist has made the transition to non-clinical / non-medical and become a project manager with clinical / medical experience.  How I made IT Project Management in the NHS my career is a great insight into making such a transition.  One of the advantages of this approach is the empathy and understanding a clinician / medical specialist feels towards the patient. 

Rather than being a “tech-head” the “experienced” clinician can so often see things from the patient’s point of view and therefore help develop more patient “friendly” systems.

Permanent, Contract, Fixed term, Associate, Consultant – so many job titles

What do they all mean?  Well, the first one, Permanent Project Manager is easy for all of us to understand and is, in most cases, the NHS’s preferred route to recruitment.  But getting a permanent job within the NHS is a lot harder than you may think.

Even though the NHS is crying out for good, permanent project managers the recruitment process can be very long and tortuous and many a good project manager has fallen by the wayside or just given up in frustration.

NHS Jobs - This website is the de facto standard for all permanent jobs in the NHS and this is usually where your journey begins.  At the time of writing we found over 240 permanent jobs for project managers across the UK (over 400 if you count “fixed term” - more about this variation later).  NHS Jobs is actually very good at advertising jobs, it just goes a bit downhill when you come to apply for one.  You can free text search, use filters (salary range, job type, pay band etc.) and you can narrow down by location in the initial search boxes.  The amount of detail is large indeed and this is mainly due to internal recruitment regulations of giving the whole population a chance to apply for the job.  It can be a bit too plentiful and off putting if you feel you don’t have all the requisite skills and abilities.  Nevertheless, it is the prescribed route for NHS permanent jobs.  Typical salaries in the NHS will range from circa £25,000 to circa £60,000 – any higher and you are moving into the realm of a Programme Manager (a project manager who manages many projects is a programme manager)

As highlighted above, the NHS always prefer permanent employees but many times it just isn’t possible due to poor response, poor candidates or the process just taking too long so the good candidates go elsewhere.  So, in these cases the NHS need to hire a Contract Project Manager.  Unfortunately, a few years ago the government hardened their stance about allowing contract PM’s to work in the public sector via their UK limited company.  This is, of course, the IR35 regulation which attempts to classify all freelance contractors using a limited company as disguised employees.  Introduced by Gordon Brown over 10 years ago it hasn’t really achieved the levels of income from additional tax and National Insurance that the government expected.  April 2017 was another bad time for freelance contractors when the Conservative government demanded that all public sector organisations determine the tax status of individual contractors via an HMRC created “tool” - suffice it to say not many freelancers get through the tool! teams However, things are finally beginning to look up for NHS experienced project managers as many suppliers have moved to a more “consultative” approach providing such skills as “associates” working for the supplier and not just contractors working under the Client's control.  These same suppliers have also moved to a more “project based” solution for their clients.  This approach is much more “professional services” and can also involve putting together whole teams, working on strict monthly deliverables.  The NHS now has a much more flexible approach to bringing in specialist skills than it has seen for quite some time.  Day rates for Project Managers vary from £200 per day to £600 per day dependent upon their level of skill and experience.

Fixed Term work for Project Managers is extremely popular right now.  It is essentially “permanent” work but for a specific period.  The minimum being 6 months and the maximum, according to government guidelines, should be no more than 2 years.  Salaries are no different from permanent salaries for the same job.  You just don’t get the permanency with these types of roles.  The employment terms are very close to the equivalent permanent post, holidays, pension etc. but really check out what is on offer.  It’s a bit of a halfway house really and usually appeals to existing permanent staff who are looking for a more flexible form of employment.  If you get a fixed term role and enjoy it treat the experience as a stepping stone to a full-blown contract where you will earn more per day, but you will have added responsibilities to operate your own Limited Company (but there are plenty of good accountants out there to help.


Associate Project Manager - mentioned above and only just becoming very popular over the last 12-18 months as a legitimate way of working outside of IR35 and therefore having the benefit of using your own UK Limited Company.  There are an increasing number of suppliers going down this route now – many of them previously would have supplied you through a “contract for service” which was intended to cover you against the worst of IR35.  Now you need to become an Associate of the supplier – check to see the supplier has a proper associate’s agreement.  This is quite a different document to what you may be used to previously.  Essentially, as an Associate you work for the supplier and the supplier then has a contract to provide your services to the client.  However, the supplier is always in charge in terms of agreeing and monitoring monthly deliverables.  Successfully achieving your deliverables means you will get paid!  Pay needs to be on a monthly cycle and the client does not authorise a timesheet, you supply the supplying company with a time record.  The supplier can substitute you if you do not reach your deliverables of for any other reason deemed relevant to the supplier.  You have no right to any notice as an associate.  Despite it appearing more restrictive it is a route ideally suited for independent specialists running their own UK Limited Company within the public sector.  You can be an Associate for more than one supplier.  Rates are the same as mentioned above for contract work.


Consultant Project Manager – Essentially the same as an Associate but you will probably be working for the one of the Big 5 Consulting firms - although frowned upon by central government due to their very high costs they are still to be seen within the NHS.  In fact, in a recent article, the NHS has just published a framework of over 100 consultancy firms to assist it over the next 5 years.  Believe me there will be plenty of opportunities for Project Managers with these companies.  Most of the time you will be a permanent employee but as things get busy even consultancies such as those listed above will need to go to the market to bring in the additional specialist resource.

So, in conclusion there has never been a better time to be a project manager working in the NHS whichever way you find your job.  Best of luck and if you need to discuss any of the above points or need further advice please contact me as indicated below.

Don Tomlinson, Managing Director and Founder of max20, GoToJobBoard and the Unsung Hero Awards

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