For many project professionals, whatever their industry, the pandemic has brought a flurry of activity in the quest to reinvent and reposition organisations. After a few months of intense work, more than a few are facing burnout.
But many have also faced a prolonged lull in career opportunities. With some project professionals coming off extended furlough, less lucky ones becoming redundant and others simply out of work, they all face a stark reality. Competition is going to increase in the job market, and that means the always-present need to upskill is thrown into sharp relief.
So, for those with more time on their hands, and a new sense of urgency, how should they be upskilling?
Embracing the new
Pre-pandemic, APM’s Salary and Market Trends Survey 2020 (based on research conducted in November 2019) showed a clear appetite to embrace new ways of thinking, especially as the profession is becoming ever-younger: one-fifth of respondents had less than two years’ experience, and 72 per cent of that group were under 34.
In the pre-COVID world of the survey, future technology loomed large. On the one hand was a perceived threat to jobs from automation; on the other, a world of potential, with automated systems, AI and data analytics promising opportunities and more interesting jobs – with an end to mundane tasks.
Yet technology was overshadowed in the survey by other, arguably more traditional skills: people management, stakeholder engagement, project leadership and strategic management all rated higher in importance with respondents. Perhaps this reflects the fact that technology was already well incorporated into project managers’ work.
Even risk management sat above digital and data skills. All this may demonstrate, to quote the survey, a “growing belief that effective delivery of projects cannot be outsourced to technology and that softer skills of leadership and delegation are paramount”.
Has the balance now changed in the soft skills v technology debate?
Mark Reeson, an international strategic project management advisor and APM Fellow, suggests that the profession in this time of pandemic is reflecting the survey, in that it relies more on traditional skills than “project management sci-fi”. There has been a shift away, he asserts, from “technical answers” towards what really matters at a time of crisis: “people skills”.
This reflects a need and a desire for project professionals to be part of the economic solution, rather than simply fulfilling their own professional needs.
The pandemic’s ‘gift’: Time to upskill
The pandemic has also reinforced that upskilling in general remains vital. For project managers who – whether through furlough, redundancy or stalled project activity – have a windfall of free time, Reeson sees them coming to APM to connect, network and do their chartered assessments. Some of these tasks were perhaps on the back burner for busy project managers pre-pandemic.
Emma-Ruth Arnaz-Pemberton, APM Fellow and director of consulting services at Wellingtone , a project and portfolio management consultancy and a training partner of APM, concurs: “Project professionals have taken the time to revisit their professional qualifications, and in some cases diversify into new ways of working.” Uncertainty “has driven many to look for learning opportunities of all kinds to strengthen their CV and skillset”.
This is driven at least partly by the rapid organisational change forced by COVID-19, especially the rise in home-working and schooling. “If technology is different, the way we work is different, and what we offer our customers is different, it is logical for project professionals to have to change, learn, experience and accept something new.”
The signs are that project professionals have seen the need, embracing virtual learning courses. Likewise those who offer them services. Wellingtone has “created a number of free tools to help professionals review the performance of teams, technology, and individual project management skills.” These, she says, have been popular with those reflecting on their current roles and looking to improve their skills.
Being qualified will no longer be enough
So how can project professionals leverage their skills? This is an important question at a time when the pandemic presents a danger to the profession – a surplus of project managers seeking and competing for work, or being hired only for certain parts of projects, rather than from start to finish.
Reeson points to a changing professional environment, with PMOs in particular danger. Thus, project managers need to be able to communicate their added-value skills rather than just trade skills: “the value it adds by doing it the correct way... simply being qualified will no longer be enough”.
With project skills being applied more to business recovery than specific projects, project managers need to send the message that it is their skill sets that will give firms the structure they need as they strive to recover. Risk management skills will be particularly valuable: “With the pandemic, the ‘what ifs’ of similar happening again will be in the minds of many; thus risk management will be huge.”
Getting this message across requires communication and teamwork, rather than just technical skills, although the latter must not be underestimated. Consider, for example, the ability to work virtually, such as giving a good online presentation to the board.
Get on board or be left behind
None of this is to suggest that newer skills, such as AI, are going to be sidelined in the future. But these are, says Reeson, for “when we are over the hump”.
Whenever those times arrive, project managers will need to get on board or be left behind. “If you fail to upskill, you run the risk of being sidelined instead of remaining visible, or becoming irrelevant.”
Arnaz-Pemberton underlines why upskilling remains vital, both in the pandemic era and on both sides of it: “We have seen over the last few years where project professionals have not refreshed their knowledge… they have found that the project management industry they joined has changed almost beyond all recognition.”
Upskilling is about refreshing old skills as well as learning new ones. For now, for project professionals, it is as much about the basics of communication, reiterating what project management can contribute and why it is so valuable in economic recovery.
Perhaps those project managers surveyed by APM in what already seems like another era – November 2019 – were ahead of the curve.
Written by Conrad Heine
Conrad Heine is a freelance journalist from New Zealand, based in London. As well as blogging for the APM, he has written for Project about the overseas campuses of British universities, the project management of elections, post-disaster project management and how project management is changing in the NGO sector. He also focuses on business education and development issues.