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How project professionals are future-proofing their skill sets post-pandemic

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By early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic tipped the world of work on its head, project professionals were used to hearing about ‘the future of work’, ‘upskilling’ and more. The pandemic has only turbocharged this, with the shift to virtual working, leaner teams and a greater focus on technology certain to remain central to the profession going forward.

What the new world will look like is not yet clear, but details are starting to take shape. APM is doing its part to understand that world with its Projecting the Future conversation, which highlights the necessity of being an adaptive project professional in a landscape ever more beset by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

So, what should project professionals do now?

The ongoing importance of digital and technical skills was a prominent finding in APM’s 2020 Salary and Market Trends Survey, and the findings of the 2021 survey also bear that out. You can view the findings of the Salary and Market Trends Survey 2021 here.

Research also highlights the role of resilience, which is crucial in dealing with challenges like furlough and redundancy, or the need to change sectors.

HSM, a research consultancy founded by Professor Lynda Gratton of the London Business School, which works to prepare organisations for the future of work, stresses the need to focus beyond digital. While the massive shift to virtual working makes digital skills essential, such skills are themselves vulnerable to automation, with many of HSM’s organisational clients planning to accelerate digitisation of tasks and processes.

Harriet Molyneaux, HSM’s managing director, describes “a decrease in the shelf life of digital skills… the general view is that many digital skills have a two to three-year shelf life”.

Thus, digital skills require regular updating – relatively easy to do, suggests HSM, thanks to digital programmes. However, soft skills can’t be neglected.

“Human skills, such as the ability to communicate, to listen actively, to display empathy, have a really long shelf life, and accumulate over time.” Yet HSM’s research suggests that they are often overlooked, something project professionals cannot afford to do.

“Promotions result from being tactically able. To manage teams, we need those human skills… you are not going to be able to switch from being a technical person without the right skill sets. Earlier on, you need to start thinking about communication, active listening and critical thinking.”

Plus, soft skills aren’t a completely separate discipline – they complement technical skills. “People managing complex systems need to be able to take data and turn it into decisions in a useful and clear way.” That takes effective communication.

How to approach a switch in sector

For Alina Grigoruta, an associate member of APM looking to move from retail into construction project management, soft skills are key. While undertaking an MSc in project management in the built environment at Oxford Brookes University, she is immersing herself in continuous professional development through the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), helping out with career development events.

“Switching industries is challenging,” she says. “There is a need to continuously develop yourself as a professional to remain competitive on the market.”

Digital skills, Grigoruta acknowledges, are undoubtedly important. But in advancing along her path, networking has been vital, especially the work she is doing with CIOB. “This is a great opportunity for contact with professionals from the various areas of the industry.”

APM’s resources are also central to her quest. She has been active on the APM Hub. “There, you can create discussions, ask questions, raise concerns – it increases your confidence as you learn about the profession.”

The more you communicate, the more you learn

Grigoruta stresses the importance of communication skills in building effective relations with colleagues, since project management involves “working with new teams all the time”. More effective communication can also help “increase confidence in yourself by getting involved and taking every opportunity to expand your knowledge. Always ask for feedback.”

On the path she has embarked on, Grigoruta could be forgiven for wishing the pandemic away. Yet she also sees it as an opportunity to develop the hardest of soft skills: resilience. “We must learn lessons from this pandemic – how to adapt, how to find the way out.”

For project management, as for all professions, the shape of the future is uncertain. But the need for an always-adaptable skill set, at least, is not.

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