When APM sent out its most recent Salary and Market Trends Survey questionnaire in November 2020, members were eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Eight months where the UK economy had contracted by almost 10 per cent and 11.2 million jobs had gone into furlough and normal life had been upended for more or less everyone.
Taking the temperature of an entire profession at a time like that was, to say the least, complicated. But it’s clear from the full results of the research that, despite some serious headwinds, project professionals remain resilient and remarkably upbeat.
The headline figures show that salary levels have, to a remarkable degree, held steady. There have been no significant drops in median pay levels across any of the sectoral or demographic groups. And while the median salary level has remained at £47,500 (the same level since 2017), some professionals report increases in their income. Indeed, across the UK, 10 of 14 regions saw average salaries increase.
The fact that almost half of project professionals now earn £50,000 or more demonstrates that those building a career in project management can expect to be well paid as they climb the corporate ladder. And while the research shows a significant increase in the number who hold a project management qualification, rising from 83 per cent to 86 per cent in the last year, there is also growing evidence of the value of Chartered Project Professional (ChPP) status. The survey revealed that those at ChPP level are being trusted on the largest projects: they tend to work on projects with a mean value of £233.7m – far above the average value.
Happily, despite the huge amount of disruption that COVID-19 has wreaked, the fact that 85 per cent of those surveyed report no change in their employment status suggests a few things. First, that many projects have continued unabated; second, it may also underline the ability of some employers to effectively redeploy staff away from postponed projects into other ongoing work.
And contractors have weathered the storm reasonably well too: 70 per cent report no changes to their contract status, a higher figure than many might have predicted under the circumstances.
But make no mistake: the pandemic has taken its toll. For instance, a third (35 per cent) of freelance and self-employed project professionals report that their number of clients and volume of work has decreased because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And although the number of those who have lost jobs is relatively small, a closer look at the figures shows that two-fifths (40 per cent) of unemployed respondents had lost their job since March 2020, of whom most (69 per cent) had been in permanent employment, which suggests that much of the pain has been inflicted directly by the pandemic. Whether those numbers reverse in the coming year as things begin to reopen remains to be seen.
But clearly, even for the majority who reported surviving the year with established working lives intact, 2020 took its toll: the survey showed that, after two years of positive trends, the number reporting their organisation is growing has dropped from 51 per cent to 41 per cent, while almost one in five (17 per cent) report their organisation is experiencing a downturn, compared to nine per cent the year before.
So, it’s fair to say the priority for many is to hold firm against the headwinds. That’s reflected by a drastic decline in the proportion expecting an increase in pay in the next 12 months. While this was driven by more anticipating no change in their own salary prospects, the confidence in future earnings growth that characterised much of the past few years has undoubtedly been dented.
Indeed, there’s no question that many in the profession are fearful of COVID-19’s long-term impact. Only 15 per cent of those surveyed count themselves as optimistic for the UK economy in the next 12 months, with almost two-thirds (64 per cent) highlighting COVID-19 as a serious challenge – and for just over one-fifth (22 per cent) it is the most significant challenge. And that concern is higher among younger respondents than older: 72 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 see it as a significant challenge, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 55 to 64.
It must be taken as a tribute to the generally rewarding career that project management offers that overall levels of job satisfaction have remained remarkably resilient in the face of all this. Whether it’s a case of many respondents feeling grateful to remain actively engaged in the profession over the past 12 months or not, when 83 per cent of respondents say they are either satisfied or very satisfied in their job, then clearly there are some encouraging fundamentals at play.