Shortage of project managers sends businesses scrambling

By Sharon Florentine, CIO |  IT Management, project management

Project managers are in short supply, and that will leave many organizations woefully disadvantaged as the economy rebounds, according to a recent study by project management training company ESI International.

The ESI 2013 Project Manager Salary and Development Survey, based on data from 1,800 project managers in 12 different industries across the U.S., reports that as projects continue to increase in complexity and size, many organizations find themselves both understaffed and with underdeveloped project management professionals. And that's putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

"Budget constraints, an aging base of professionals and a looming talent war all contribute to a talent crisis that should be addressed from the highest levels of the organization," says Mark Bashrum, vice president of corporate marketing and open enrollment at ESI International.

Projects Managers

"The growing needs of businesses demand a more strategic view of the staffing, development and promotion of their project managers since project execution impacts an organization's bottom line and its ability to satisfy its customers," Bashrum says.

Too Many Projects, Not Enough Experienced Managers

The problem isn't a lack of project management professionals overall, says Bashrum, but rather it's finding experienced, senior talent. Add to that the larger issues of shortsighted hiring practices, a lack of competency planning, and a reduced focus on training and development, and many companies' business objectives are at risk, according to the study.

"Finding and retaining junior project managers is not so much the problem; it is really the mid-level and senior PMs who are so difficult to find," says Bashrum.

According to the survey, 44% of the reported project staffing shortages are for senior-level project managers, and 48% of survey respondents said it was "very difficult" to find senior talent. Unfortunately, it is this group of people that organizations depend on to deliver their most strategically important projects, Bashrum says.

There are three major factors contributing to the shortage of experienced project managers, Bashrum says:

As the economy rebounds, many organizations are growing. In and of itself, growth is a good thing for businesses, but growth means more markets, more products and more systems and that means more projects for which there aren't enough PMs.

Many project managers are reaching retirement age and leaving the workforce. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), 60% of their members are over the age of 40. "This is a real problem because these are the people who understand the business," says Bashrum. "Over the years they have not only acquired project management skills, but also an understanding of their industry and their organization; knowledge which is not easily replaced."

Many organizations have stopped actively developing their existing project manager talent due to reductions in training budgets. "In many cases, this means they have very little in the way of 'bench strength' and do not have a qualified group of mid-level project managers ready to move up to the senior ranks as project demand increases," he says.

Should You Build or Buy Project Managers?

If you're looking to add to your project management team, there are significant advantages to looking internally and developing the talent you already have, according to the survey.

The data showed that it's 8% to 11% less expensive to develop a mid-level project manager from within your organization than to hire one from without.

Many organizations report that they believe they can simply hire senior project managers when they're needed, but availability is a big problem, says Bashrum. As demand continues to escalate and supply of senior-level PMs drops, building a strong 'bench' of senior PM talent will be critical for future success, he says.

"Of course, there's the added, less-measurable benefit that, by developing talent from within, you build on their existing organizational and industry awareness that they've gained along with the development of skills and competencies," says Bashrum.

According to the survey, it can take up to 10 months to bring an otherwise experienced project manager up to speed in a new organization, he says.

Identifying Project Management Talent

Every organization has different project demands, but there's not one-size-fits-all prescription for identifying promising project management talent and grooming them for senior positions, Bashrum says. But there are a few best practices for strategically building a project management community, he says.

"The first thing to do is to bring in a third-party consulting firm skilled in project management development and training to assess the current state of your company's project organization and benchmark existing talent and their ability to execute on projects effectively," he says.

While some organizations attempt to make these judgments in-house, Bashrum says it's best to outsource this function, because it is difficult to be objective when examining your own organization.

Next, it is critical to anticipate and understand what the future competency requirements could be over the next year, three years, and five years; along with an understanding of how risk might impact those requirements, Bashrum says.

"Once you have a bead on the current and desired states of the project organization, you can start building and executing a development plan to ensure that you have the right people with the right skills at the right time," he says.

What should you be looking for? Well, the specifics are different for each organization, but in general, Bashrum says business acumen and communication skills are at the top of the list. He adds that negotiation skills, critical thinking and problem-solving skills are also extremely important.

"On the more technical side, skills like risk management, scheduling and cost control, and quality management are must-haves for any organization," Bashrum says.

The Project Management Silver Lining

Though businesses face a project management shortage, the outlook is excellent for those already working in the field and for those new college graduates who are looking to enter it, according to the study.

"Demand has steadily been increasing while overall supply has been flat at best, as we see in the study," Bashrum says. "This translates to higher salaries for all PMs, but even more so for specific industries and for senior PMs, as the ESI salary survey revealed," he said.

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