Skills Gaps Point to Challenge of Finding Strategic Project Management Skills

Finding the right person for the job requires a combination of clear objectives, the right channels – and often a bit of luck. Finding a project manager with …

Patrick O’Rourke, a recruiter at Chicago IT consulting firm SWC Technology Partners

Finding the right person for the job requires a combination of clear objectives, the right channels – and often a bit of luck. Finding a project manager with the right skills can be even trickier. Some project management (PM) skills are harder to find than others. So what are the most difficult PM skills to recruit?

Research by APQC has identified a number of needed skills that are seemingly in short supply. Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland, research program manager for APQC, noted that project management offices (PMOs) are moving beyond typical project management activities, and are now providing more strategic insights and services that support enterprise-wide initiatives. In July and August 2014, APQC conducted a survey to assess the new roles PMOs are playing within organizations and to understand the key characteristics (structure, responsibilities, and skills) necessary to provide strategic support.

Lyke-Ho-Gland explained that to understand the current capabilities and skills gaps, respondents were asked to indicate if their PMOs currently a) have, b) do not have but need to develop in the next two years, or c) do not need, for a list of 18 potential PMO skills. The list of skills ran the gamut from traditional PMO skill sets (e.g., time and budget management and problem solving) to softer skills (e.g., leadership, communications, political savvy).

According to APQC, the majority of respondents cited key competencies in both traditional project management core competencies (e.g., knowledge of project management processes, time management, and problem solving) and softer skills (e.g., leadership, communications, and interpersonal).

The need for soft skills

Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland, research program manager for APQC, said: "project management offices (PMOs) are now providing more strategic insights and services that support enterprise-wide initiatives."
Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland, research program manager for APQC, said: “project management offices (PMOs) are now providing more strategic insights and services that support enterprise-wide initiatives.”

She added that PMO study participants estimated that effective project management is approximately 15 percent traditional project management skills and 85 percent soft skills, such as communications, engagement, leadership, and political savviness.

“The soft skills are much more difficult to hire for and some organizations prefer to hire individuals that already show strong organizational and interpersonal skills, and have pre-established internal networks,” she said. “They then train them on the more traditional project management skillsets. However if organizations need to look externally to hire project managers they will include behavioral and scenario-based interview practices to test the individuals soft skills and their cultural fit with the organization.”

The APQC study found that in regard to skills gaps—skills the PMOs indicate they will need to develop in the next two years—respondents identified the need to improve their knowledge management, political savvy, data analysis, and forecasting competencies.

Lyke-Ho-Gland said that given the growing availability of data and Big Data’s promise to provide relevant and timely information to support management’s decision making, improving the PMO’s data analysis and forecasting makes sense. “These skills not only enable the PMO to provide insights to the business, but, when combined with the PMOs’ unique position to see all projects across the business, also help elevate the PMO from a project manager to a trusted advisor,” she said.

Patrick O’Rourke, a recruiter at Chicago IT consulting firm SWC Technology Partners, had a different take on things. He said the most difficult technical PM skill to hire is the “technical” skill.

“All strong PMs have great communication skills which often lead employers to believe that they can compensate for not having a true technical background. However in the end there is no substitute for having the hands on technical engineering/development experiences to draw from when scoping, budgeting, architecting and communicating with the business users,” he said.

O’Rourke went on to say that, in the end, there is no true substitute for experience, hands on technical experiences being the most important skill in building a strong foundation for a technical project manager.

Digital competencies and business acumen

Christopher Evans, Practice Lead at ReThink Recruitment, highlighted digital understanding and capabilities as most difficult to recruit.
Christopher Evans, Practice Lead at ReThink Recruitment, highlighted digital understanding and capabilities as most difficult to recruit.

Christopher Evans, Practice Lead at ReThink Recruitment, said that perhaps the most difficult skill to source – but the most popular in demand – is digital understanding and capabilities.

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“We’re increasingly asked to source PMs able to recognize the benefit of digital opportunities for a business and incorporate this element into growth plans. However, as this is such a ‘modern’ skill that has only recently been in demand, there is a limited supply of specialist talent,” he said.

Evans added that a combination of business acumen and technological insight is also an attribute that is currently highly sought-after, but very difficult to find, in many project managers. “The reason behind this is simply that this skills set hasn’t historically been required. Traditionally there would be a separation of the two, with IT project managers being employed alongside business PMs. However, as technology is now integral to almost any project, this combination is understandably needed,” he said.

The solution, Evans said, lies in long-term investment in the development of individuals that is supported by the more immediate attraction of candidates from beyond the sector to source these skills.

Finally, Evans noted, specific change management experts also appear to be in short supply at the moment, particularly within the financial services arena where this skills set is highly sought after. “These niche requirements have only emerged in recent years to support regulatory change within the sector and business improvement initiatives in light of the recent economic troubles,” he said.

He went on to say that as these specialist skills have not historically been required, there is understandably a limited supply of project managers with such a niche background.

“While in the short term the use of contractors and interims will help to meet the high levels of demand, longer term solutions such as the development of existing talent will be beneficial, particularly given the costs often associated with the temporary staff option,” he said.

This article was originally published by NSAM’s sister publication, Global Delivery Report.

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