Coping with Talent Shortages

A look at what’s driving continued talent shortages in project management with global expert Kevin Korterud who shares why organizations must prioritize training and enable PMOs.

A post-pandemic recovery is underway as countries and organizations mobilize to build more resilient and sustainable economies. But a recent New York Times article warned that a lack of skilled workers would present obstacles to completing planned infrastructure projects. This continues the trend set during the pandemic when industries around the globe experienced historic labor shortages. Unless talent shortages are addressed, they will complicate urgent initiatives to diversify supply chains, transition away from fossil fuels and support development in emerging economies. 

Kevin Korterud, associate director, delivery excellence for a global technology consulting firm believes the ongoing talent challenges that many projectized organizations are experiencing currently have less to do with the pandemic, but instead arise from the increased complexity of project management in general.

We spoke with Korterud about these challenges and what it means for organizations and the profession moving forward.  

PMI: What are the challenges that you see driving talent shortages in project management? 

Korterud: I think there are a few general trends that we can identify. The first is an increase in the complexity of everything technical. People used to call certain types of projects “business projects” and share that a body of work is not a technology project. What's happened over time is that, increasingly, there’s no such thing as business projects because if you’re doing a process improvement, invariably it involves some form of technology, which adds inherent complexity.  

The second thing is — and I think this has to do with demographics more than anything else — the demand keeps going up for doing projects, but the supply of project professionals doesn't increase. 

The third challenge is that the ability to think organically around project challenges is one of the hardest skills to find. We see people who have many certifications, and they can execute typical project management tasks. But when they are confronted with a complex, not necessarily well-defined problem, they can struggle with that. If you're doing iterative development like agile, you must be on your game even more because of the speed at which you’re traveling. You have to be an even better project manager when you're doing agile work.  

We’re seeing massive demand, but the supply is just not keeping up. And companies often don’t have the time to develop people into project managers. They just say, “Okay, you’re a project manager now. Go get your Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification.” But we see an emerging career track for project managers where organizations develop an experienced workforce and look to retain them. 

PMI: Do you think more organizations are changing how they train project managers in light of these challenges?  

Korterud: I see more companies looking to develop their own project managers and centralizing the project management function, so everybody does things in a consistent way and project management is seen as a key capability. This helps to ensure that everybody develops new solutions quickly and with quality. 

PMI: What do these talent shortages mean for more experienced project managers? 

Korterud: I think the folks that have deep project management experience are getting oversubscribed because they have the relevant skills for today’s complex delivery challenges. Let’s say you've got 10 project managers and four are really experienced with strong business domain skills. They tend to get oversubscribed as they are looked at as the “go-to” people in every organization that can solve complex issues. As a result, I’ve seen a lot of project management offices (PMOs) starting to provide delivery enablement services. They do some things for project managers, so the project manager doesn’t have to do them. 

Here’s an analogy: Back in the day, doctors used to do everything. They would do examinations, they would do injections, they would stitch people up. Now there’s this role called the physician assistant. The physician assistant helps the doctor see and help more patients than they ever did on their own. That’s where I see the proliferation of PMOs with project enablement services. So, the project manager doesn’t have to figure out operational issues; e.g., how do I get this pie chart to turn different colors based on risk profiles or bug severities?  

I do think it’s true that there’s a huge opportunity cost every time a project manager has to touch a PowerPoint or perform on operational task; organizations need those people free to solve risks and issues, integration problems, dependencies, people issues and whatnot. And that’s where I think some of the emerging models around PMOs are helpful. 

PMI: What are the biggest challenges still to come because of these talent shortages? 

Korterud: Where we’re starting to see more challenges is at the portfolio level. I don't think I would choose to be a CIO today if I was asked because it’s an incredibly difficult job. It's even harder than it used to be because there’s such a constantly growing demand for technology delivery — not only from headquarters but also with business units and employees. To maintain a competitive edge, reduce costs and take advantage of all these great technologies, it’s hard to manage a portfolio with all of those concurrent projects.  

This results in initiative overload — and that’s where big project challenges can occur. It can put companies into stall conditions because they only have so many project managers to go around for all the projects that they have agreed to undertake. As a result, we’re seeing the emergence of more enterprise PMOs to harmonize, rationalize and balance. Companies must start saying “not necessarily no — but not now.” These offices are aligning what’s important for that year for a particular company.  

 

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