Paving a Career Path for America’s Finest: PRA’s Veteran’s Project Manager Fast Track Program
Lora Deming
Lora Deming
Proposal Manager

The transition from military to civilian life is often a difficult one, and the abrupt end of the military’s high-operational tempo can lead to “high-speed withdrawal.” But last year, our leadership here at PRA created a new program to help military veterans make the switch.

In 2016, Human Resources collaborated with Project Management Group’s (PMG’s) senior leadership, many of whom are also military veterans, to create a project manager (PM) fast track program that provides a career transition path for recently retired or separated veterans.

This unique program, which is currently recruiting a second group of new hires, has proven extremely successful at quickly ramping up PMs in 18-24 months, compared to the current 10-year PM career path.

Last August, Ismael Ramirez and Andrew Snyder were selected as the first new hires in the pilot program. Andrew enlisted in the US Marine Corp and earned his commission while on active duty, where he held training and leadership roles. He retired after 20 years of service. Ismael served 11 years on active duty in the US Army and is currently serving in the Army Reserve in Civil Affairs, where he engages government officials and local leaders, provides humanitarian assistance, and manages reconstruction projects. In addition, he also served as an instructor at the US Army Special Warfare Center and School.

John Mann, MS, PMP, Vice President, Product Delivery is one of the leaders of the mentoring program. A US Army Infantry Desert Storm and Just Cause veteran his military career spans four years on active duty and nine years in the National Guard. He says each new hire has the proven leadership abilities, management experience, and soft skills required in a seasoned PM, so the focus is on learning the pharmaceutical research industry.

Given the candidates’ backgrounds, learning about the industry comes down to nouns. Pete Marston, MBA, PMP, Senior Project Manager is another leader of the program. He was active duty in the US Army from 2002-2007 and in the National Guard from 2008-2010. His career included multiple deployments as a platoon leader and battalion detachment commander in the Iraq War. As Pete explains, “The nouns are different, but the verbs are exactly the same. Everything that made a senior NCO or officer successful in the military? Those actions are the same actions that we need them to take here. Their leadership, their planning, and their identification of risk—all of those processes are very familiar to them. So, how do we teach them those nouns?

Pete marston
Pete Marston after a Failed IED Attack

These nouns are taught through mentorship and exposure. “The biggest challenge was trying to learn about PRA, the CRO industry, and the industry jargon/acronyms all at once. For a few months, it felt like drinking from a fire hose, but after a while things started to make more sense, and the big picture was easier to see,” explains Ismael.

Over a period of three to five months, the PMs act as project specialists, supporting multiple projects across several different therapeutic areas, designs, etc., to get exposure to the CRO industry. This exposure is reinforced through intense mentorship, which is guided by a targeted mentoring checklist.

Mentors meet with the PMs each week, or more often if needed, to discuss what they are hearing and learning to help them quickly understand the industry. The PMs transition into steady state after five months, participating in one or two projects as senior project specialists within the mentors’ projects. They also support each study’s assigned PM by picking up PM-specific tasks, such as client interaction or forecasting.

Potential candidates for the program are identified by recruiter Debbie Ralston, PRA Global Talent Acquisition and current North Carolina National Guard member, who served nearly nine years on active duty as a US Army combat medic. Given the program’s intensity, only two candidates are selected from a pool of 10 to 12. The program is open to officers or enlisted veterans with a strong leadership background who meet PRA’s additional hiring requirements.

Given the success of the pilot program, PRA recently opened two new PM fast track requisitions. The newest team member to join the program is Marilyn Houde, who served eight years in the US Army and five years in the Army Reserves as a Quartermaster and Civil Affairs Officer. During her military service, she oversaw logistical operations in support of humanitarian and combat operations in Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan. As a Civil Affairs Officer, she provided local governments and security forces in South America with community engagement strategies in areas affected by years of civil war and drug trade.

Marilyn houde
Marilyn Houde in a Change of Command Ceremony

Overcoming Challenges

Mentoring relationships are critical in ensuring the new PMs are not only supported, but also encouraged and challenged. As veterans themselves, mentors understand the shift between military and civilian roles. “They are coming from a place where things are very intense,” explains Pete.

Culture is especially important to veterans, as they find family in those who were strangers yesterday becoming brothers/sisters-in-arms working toward a common goal or greater good. “Having a supportive team of fellow PMs, functional managers, and mentors made the transition feel like it was just another change of duty stations,” says Marilyn.

Looking Toward the Future

Veterans entering today’s workforce hold college degrees and bring years of hands-on experience in roles that align with our industry’s needs, such as information technology, data management, patient recruitment, clinical operations, etc. Although the PMG is the only group currently recruiting transitioning veterans, there are opportunities to create these initiatives across many service areas. All it takes is asking veterans within teams to take care of other veterans and a willingness to teach them new nouns.

Andrew Snyder says the program helped ease his transition back to civilian life. He told his mentor, “My job at PRA has been the easiest part of my transition (out of the military).”

His mentor’s response? “That is how is should be.”