The Future of the Project Management Role

Demand for project managers is expected to rise significantly in the next decade, but companies currently struggle to adequately fill the role.
the future of project management

Part of Dan O’Neil’s day is finding the right talent for his team. As manager of project management and business analysis in the radiology department at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, he balances completing projects and seeks out project managers with radiology experience or radiology experts interested in project management.

“Far too often, there are tradeoffs between those two things,” he said. He hopes to grow his team and plan for the future by talking with chambers of commerce, schools and other businesses.

There will be a demand for 87.7 million project managers by 2027, according to Project Management Institute, or PMI, a professional membership association based in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Failure to anticipate for this projected demand could result in a loss of $207.9 billion in gross domestic product through 2027, PMI estimates. “That’s not something to take lightly,” said Brian Weiss, vice president of practitioner career development at PMI.

An increased demand for project managers comes from a combination of an increase in jobs requiring project-oriented skills, project managers retiring and an increase in demand for project talent, especially in China and India, according to the PMI report.

With this comes challenges. “I don’t know of any other profession that crosses all job functions, all industries, all geographies,” Weiss said.

Project managers must have a wide variety of skills, including technical knowledge of how to complete a project, business acumen and leadership skills. “They have to deal with a very diverse and, many times, globally dispersed team, so it requires a very broad and diverse set of skills and competencies,” Weiss said. And although it helps to have domain knowledge, such as with Mayo Clinic’s radiology projects, Weiss said the most important thing is the ability to accomplish the job and rally a team to do so.

A misunderstanding of what project managers are is another reason companies feel there’s a shortage of this talent, said Todd Williams, president of eCameron Inc., an executive consultancy focused on creating efficiencies in projects and organizations based in Camas, Washington. He sees job postings for project managers requesting very specific knowledge in certain systems, which he said aligns more with a subject matter expert. Therefore, a mindset change needs to happen for business leaders to ask for and find the right talent.

Solutions to the Shortage

The gap between supply and demand likely isn’t as wide as thought, Williams said, but there is certainly a shortage of good project managers with leadership skills, as well as a shift toward freelancing.

In the 1980s and 90s, Williams said he saw companies preferring to have functional managers work on internal projects. This work wasn’t called a project, however. Instead, it was part of their daily work. Now, functional managers will hire a freelancer or outside company to complete projects, thus avoiding the overhead of having to hire on additional workers.

“We’re moving more and more toward a gig economy, and a gig is a project, by definition. You start it and you end it,” Williams said. The industry is headed in that direction because it’s easier to budget this way.

However, this doesn’t always bode well for companies seeking project managers with strong leadership skills. If a company chooses to have a full-time project manager, it’s up to the company to train them to be better leaders and incorporate lessons into their work to accelerate growth, Williams said. With freelancers, however, it’s up to the individual to gain this education.

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Mayo Clinic’s O’Neil brings freelancers onto his team, and he says they do great work, but then they are likely to move on to their next project elsewhere. He would love to hire them on full time, but the premium on their skills and ability to choose exciting projects keeps them freelancing, O’Neil said. The cost of a single contract worker could allow for up to three full-time staffers, “but if I want specific, understood knowledge and experience of having done this before, [I] have go to a freelance person.”

One solution to this issue is getting project management taught earlier in school, O’Neil said. Many four-year higher education institutions have the appropriate programming, but the education should start even earlier. “There’s coding classes in high school; there should be project management classes in high school,” O’Neil said.

At the university level, project management courses tend to focus on the technical skills, said Emad Rahim, chair of the Project Management Center of Excellence and an associate professor and program director at Bellevue University. While the technical skills are important, “graduates end up lacking the necessary people skills that are needed to work effectively with their teams and clients. These graduates are proficient in developing and managing the project plan, but struggle in executing their strategy, communicating their vision, delegating responsibilities and working with clients directly.”

Therefore, universities should improve upon the following, which Rahim said Bellevue will continue to do:

  • Offer more project management programs and trainings.
  • Develop more opportunities for students to participate in internships that give them an opportunity to lead business projects outside of the classroom.
  • Volunteer and join professional project management organizations and compete on virtual projects.
  • Develop a more well-rounded curriculum that is balanced between teaching technical skills and soft skills.
  • Require all business schools to include at least one project management course across their degree programs.

Connecting Project and Business

To more effectively retain top project managers, companies need to remain competitive in their salaries, benefits and opportunities, Rahim said. Those that have a history with only hiring freelancers will struggle with attracting and retaining talent because this arrangement lacks job security and professional growth within the organization. Instead, companies need to develop internal project management training programs to help develop their own workforce. “The culture and environment of a company can impact the success of a project manager,” Rahim said.

Furthermore, business leaders and project managers often have difficulty communicating, Williams said. Project managers focus on scope, schedule and budget, while executives think in terms of initiatives and delivery of value. “The language barrier between these two groups of people is huge,” he said. “What has to happen is that the executives themselves have to get an education in project management.”

Still, it’s on the project manager to communicate effectively as well, PMI’s Weiss said. “It’s absolutely the responsibility of the project manager to use the language of business, not the language of project management,” he said.

However, it’s also the responsibility of executives to connect their creation of strategy and implementation, as well as be active sponsors of projects. Business leaders should use their authority to clear roadblocks that arise for their project managers. Doing so leads to a more successful organization, Weiss said.

Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email