Vanishing Act

The Global Competition for Talent is Fierce; Find Out What It Takes to Recruit and Retain the Right People




Mired in an economic sludge that's slowing down even the fastest of the pack, companies need their best and brightest project leaders now more than ever.

But they're tough to find these days.

“Organizations are facing difficult times,” says Tamara Erickson, a Carlisle, Massachusetts, USA-based consultant and coauthor of Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills And Talent [Harvard Business School Press, 2006]. “On one hand, there is an ongoing global shortage of talent. On the other hand, we are witnessing a weakening economy and global soft spots.”

It might seem that given the shaky global economy, there would be a letup in the battle for the top project management prospects.

No such luck.

“The demand for project management talent is increasing and the situation isn't likely to change for a number of years,” says Pablo Lledó, principal at MasConsulting S.A., Mendoza, Argentina. “The war for project management talent will continue to escalate.”

The New Deal

The same old recruiting tools and techniques just aren't working. And although cold, hard cash has been known to pull in its fair share of candidates, it's next to impossible for an organization to spend its way out of labor pains.

“The ongoing trend is toward tight labor markets,” Ms. Erickson says. “This situation is forcing organizations to adapt and adjust.”

First and foremost, companies must develop a culture focused on investing in human capital, says Bruce W. Peterson, managing director at recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, Houston, Texas, USA.

And that sometimes means getting them while they're still young. The smart companies head to college campuses, complementing traditional internships with tuition programs for promising prospects. A company may even opt to pay for a student's senior year of college in return for a two- or three-year commitment.

On the other end of the experience spectrum, some organizations have introduced career programs for older workers looking to transition to project management from other fields.

And almost everyone out there has staked a claim online, tapping into social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn to find—and in some cases, poach—top talent.

With rivals blatantly on the prowl to steal away prospects, job-hopping has become de rigeur these days. To keep staff satisfied, companies need to offer ways for people to expand their knowledge and expertise.

Be Careful With Those

Given the current economic slowdown, some companies will inevitably have to trim the ranks. Just as in making hiring decisions, companies should take a long-term view and focus on a person's value rather than only his or her cost to an enterprise, says Ray Kogan, president of Kogan & Co., a McLean, Virginia, USA-based consulting firm.

Too often, organizations slash positions from the lower rungs of the organization while neglecting to examine far more expensive senior-level positions, he notes. Others fail to take into account a senior project manager's knowledge and social network.

Either way, the wrong decision could result in diminished bookings, billings and bottom-line results. “It's important to make the right cuts rather than the easiest cuts,” Mr. Kogan says.


Growth Plan

Candidates are looking for opportunities to learn and grow—while feeling a sense of empowerment, says Mr. Peterson.

The obvious solution is to ramp up training as well as cross-training—so internal project management leaders gain greater knowledge and develop broader sets of skills. That way, if one sector of the business shrinks, they're able to move into different roles—a plus for both employees and companies footing the bill.

“Learning interventions are considered essential for the continuous growth of our associates,” says Vijay Prasad, head of the enterprise applications and business intelligence solutions group at IT giant Satyam Computer Services Ltd., Hyderabad, India.

Along with courses on technical and management skills, the company also provides language and cross-cultural awareness programs.

Why Does It Have to Be So Hard?

There are myriad reasons for the dearth of project talent out there. One problem is the sheer scope and complexity of today's projects, particularly those in design, engineering, procurement and construction, says Bruce W. Peterson, Korn/Ferry International.

“Project management teams move from site to site and they often wind up working in a different country every few years,” he says. “It's an extremely difficult situation for younger professionals with children.”

Even with allowances and other relocation benefits, many people simply aren't willing to deal with the demands of such an assignment.

“These days, companies must recognize, whether they like it or not, they are in the education business,” Ms. Erickson says. The upside, she adds, is that training can help build a more agile organization while decreasing the need to recruit and hire new employees.

Although salary and benefits are important, Mr. Lledó says, offering to pay for employees to train for and take the Project Management Professional (PMP®) exam can go a long way toward sealing a deal or keeping someone on board. Likewise, firms that offer a way to gain sophisticated project management knowledge are more likely to win over candidates. “People are attracted to firms where there is a clear project management career path,” he says.

Devising the right compensation package can also make or break the deal, Mr. Peterson says. Of course, many organizations rely on industry benchmarks as a general guideline for determining salaries and benefits. But here too, employees are looking for something different. Depending on the age and demographics of the workforce, organizations are increasingly turning to lifestyle benefits—including flextime, job sharing and telecommuting. Another option may be phased retirements that allow older employees to stay on part-time or work on special projects.

Finally, there's the litmus test of whether people find an employer desirable and the work environment attractive. To a certain extent, recruitment success is predicated on building a brand attractive to both job seekers and current employees. Just as Apple has a reputation among consumers as being hip and cool, companies are seen a certain way by employees—for better or worse.

“It's absolutely essential to understand the image that people have and why, in general, they are either attracted or turned off by an organization,” says Mr. Peterson. “Only then is it possible to develop a comprehensive strategy that addresses all the key factors: attracting, retaining, training and developing talent.”

Satyam has tried to brand itself as a company that encourages employees to make their own decisions. “Our distinct differentiator is our entrepreneurial leadership model,” says Mr. Prasad. And it seems to be working—the company boasts a 90 percent annual retention rate.

The company combines conventional recruiting approaches with a program that slots talent into project management positions, even if the person comes from a non-related discipline. It also relies on alumni portals and social networks.

“Getting the right skill and competency on project and people management takes patient pursuit,” he says.

Satyam's ability to win over candidates varies by region. “In India, our success rate is very high,” Mr. Prasad says. “In the United States and Europe, we are still building the brand strength. In the Middle East, it has been difficult to get large numbers of experienced project managers.”

It's absolutely essential to understand the image that people have and why, in general, they are either attracted or turned off by an organization. Only then is it possible to develop a comprehensive strategy that addresses all the key factors: attracting, retaining, training and developing talent.



Of course a company's fortunes can be subject to market whims. For years, India ranked as the low-cost leader for project talent, but salaries are on the rise. How the economic slump will affect job prospects in that country and elsewhere around the world remains unclear.

But for now, the dearth of project management leaders is severe—and many organizations are left to wonder how long it will be before their performance is compromised. There are no simple answers for project directors and other executives on the front lines of project management hiring. However, crafting a visionary line of attack goes a long way toward building a better workplace and gaining a competitive advantage.

“There are a lot of ways to succeed,” says Mr. Peterson. “But the common theme is that a company must take a broad approach and think more strategically than at any time in the past.” img

Leadership 2009
Leadership 2009



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