Uncertainty and skills gap top challenges for UK project management

30 April 2019 Consultancy.uk 6 min. read
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While the UK project management scene has seen bullish growth in recent years, a number of challenges are set to befall the sector in the coming years. A prevalent atmosphere of political uncertainty and a skills shortage are major threats to prosperity in the industry for the next three years, according to a poll of leaders in the project management sector.

Project management has grown into one of UK’s largest areas of business over the past decade. With the gross value added to the UK economy by project management estimated to be £156 billion, this trend is likely to continue in the coming era. However, like any other industry, the sector is facing an intense era of change, amid the increasing ‘projectification’ of work. Project management organisations will have to rapidly and continuously respond to an evolving appetite for change in the digital age of business, while navigating political uncertainty and skills and capability shortages in the UK.

Now, a release from the Association for Project Management (APM), the industry’s collective body in the UK, has outlined which challenges the project management expects to have the greatest impact on the sector. According to the article, based around analysis from engineering consultancy Arup, 52% of businesses have already had to contend with uncertainty caused by Government policy – and while it was not mentioned, it would be safe to assume this relates at least in part to the Brexit process – while just over a third now rank this as the top challenge they have faced in the last three years.Main challenges in UKs project management industry

This challenge is forecast to remain, as 56% of businesses told researchers that the next three years would continue to see this uncertainty hanging over their profession. Indeed, it has notably impacted the consulting industry as a whole in the last year, with the UK management consulting sector seeing growth slow for the third year in a row since the Brexit referendum. Businesses are increasingly entering into wait-and-see mode, deferring projects until they can get a clearer picture of whether they will need to downgrade spending amid economic turbulence.

The next most frequently cited challenges from the past three years were access to enough people with the right project management skills and capabilities in the UK, at 32%, and cost pressures leading to severe cost containment issues, at 39%. The two issues are expected to challenge the project management sector for the next three years, with 32% and 39% of respective responses.

Skills shortage

It is widely accepted that the project professional of the future will require a diverse and flexible skill set to be able to cope with future challenges. 80% of business leaders said that skills of particular importance are leadership and management skills, budgeting and financial management, planning and monitoring, along with strategic management, digital skills and risk/opportunity management. Obtaining a sufficient number of such highly talented individuals will not be easy however, and firms will probably face a pay premium if they are to attract top workers.

Skills and capability shortages were cited in the report as a potential barrier by a third of organisations questioned. Having access to enough people with the right project management skills and capabilities in the UK is already a concern for 39% of respondents, while the financial pressures resulting from this is a worry for 37%. Thirty-two percent and 39% of businesses respectively expect these to continue to be a challenge in the next three years.

At present, the UK is facing a major talent shortage – particularly in regards to new digital skills. With the approach of Brexit threatening to stifle the flow of labour between Britain and the continent, the effects of an ageing population could see almost 3 million jobs left unfilled by 2030 – assuming the country’s economy does not shrink by then. This is a trend mirrored across the major economies of the world, which almost universally face the proposition of an ageing population, if not the problem of tightening borders.Importance of skills required by the project manager of the future

As it does not by any means exist in a vacuum, then, the project management industry will need to adapt to this transforming labour pool. Commenting on the findings of the study, Sandie Grimshaw, a Partner at PwC UK, said that as ‘megaprojects’ increase in size and complexity, the country will need to work to provide a supply of new talent to tackle such work.

Grimshaw added, “Project professionals’ skills and attributes will need to change and adapt to handle media and political pressure along with strategic stakeholders in ways that are akin to professional diplomats. Whilst the UK has a strong and growing number of project professionals, this research helps to provide a better baseline for the skills sets and numbers of professionals required to support the capability for delivering projects – both large and small – in the years ahead.”

Two-fifths of respondents stated that project management qualifications were a very important skill for a potential candidate’s CV, so it is not surprising that 37% of those surveyed said they currently sought an APM Project Management Qualification in potential candidates. At the same time, 82% expect digital skills to become more important, while less than a third of businesses are seeking future employees who possessed a master’s degree or postgraduate certificate – illustrating the great weight of importance digital skills are now attributed in the sector.

Debbie Dore Chief Executive of APM, remarked on the report, “The contribution from and demand for the project profession is more extensive than many commentators thought and is set to increase. This could lead to demand for qualified and experienced project personnel starting to outstrip supply... That’s why this report highlights to business, government and the education sector, the importance of training, development and professional standards (such as chartership) as the best way to develop a talent pool that is to scale and fit for purpose in today and tomorrow’s world.”