Managing employer’s expectations of the Graduate Project Management

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Posted by Isabella Schembri on 15th Jun 2017

On the 15th December last year the Association for Project Management North East branch held a very successful meeting of their regional Corporate event, bringing Higher Education together with Corporate members to look at how graduates are recruited and trained by employers of project managers, both large and small. The debate at this event demonstrated a clear desire on behalf of all parties to work together more closely in preparing graduates for opportunities in Project Management.

It became clear in the debate that there is currently a gap between the skills and experience of graduates presented at interview and those sought by potential employers. The branch agreed to organise a follow on workshop to enable an open discussion between the North East’s Higher Education establishments and local employers of Project Managers to better understand employers’ requirements and how they could be met.

The workshop took place on the 6th June in Sunderland at the newly developed Hope street Xchange. Duncan Ross Russell of Faithful+Gould kicked off proceedings with a summary of the previous event and highlighted where focus for the day should be. 

After Duncan’s introduction, Richard Brown, associate director of project controls at WSP, gave a splendid insight into the WSP graduate recruitment process, and followed it up with identified training gaps highlighted by colleagues. The focus of Richard’s speech ignited the second half of the workshop which Duncan put into action by listing the three questions he wanted answering by the end of the session:

•What are employers looking for in Project managers?
•What gaps exist in the graduates?
•How can these gaps be addressed?

What are employers looking for in Project managers and where are the gaps?

The work groups which included representatives from the Universities of Sunderland, Newcastle and Northumbria as well as key North East project employers spent the rest of the morning working together to come up with suggestions as to where gaps between the skills and experience of graduates presented at interview and those sought by potential employers the skills and experience of graduates presented at interview and those sought by potential employers existed and what could be done to address such areas. The gaps were summarised under three headings:

•Communication – Candidates presented for interview lack the skills to communicate effectively both in selecting the appropriate communication method and ensuring they are understood.
•Intellectual Agility – Candidates presented for interview do not demonstrate the intellectual agility that enables a successful project manager to understand an issue in which they are no expert quickly, identify the options for addressing the issue, communicating these options with the team and identifying a recommended solution.
•Experience – Candidates presented for interview are unable to demonstrate experience in applying the theory of leadership and management.

How can these gaps be addressed?

It was agreed that the gaps resulted from the lack of opportunity to allow students to apply the theory of Project Management.  A number of potential solutions were discussed: 

Identify extra-curricular experiences which build Project Management skills
In developing students practical project management skills, Universities could encourage them to identify the extra-curricular activities they are involved in in which they can apply project management theory.  Such activities can range from sport through employment to volunteering.  By drawing on these opportunities through the course the student can be encouraged to learn from them and will be prepared to present these lessons as a demonstration of application of their skills in interview at the end of the course.

Outward Bound Activities Organised by the University
It was agreed that outward bound activities can provide excellent opportunities to apply leadership and management lessons. The cost of including outward bound activities is seen as an obstacle.  As the APM develops the Chartered Standard and looks to accredit Project Management courses the emphasis placed by the APM on gaining practical experience may support the case for including such activities in future courses.

APM Student Challenge. 
It was suggested that the APM North East Branch could develop a student challenge that would provide some of the desired experience, this could be based on entrepreneurial business start-up projects.

APM Sponsorship of University Business Challenge initiatives. 
The APM North East Branch could look to sponsor existing university business challenge initiatives, encouraging project management students to join such initiatives as they are recognised by the profession.

A commitment to the way forward
APM North East corporate committee leads will review the feasibility of creating a framework for Student Project Challenges and confirm the resource required to do this.

The workshop was incredibly well received by all those who partook and ran smoothly under the guidance of Duncan and the insight from Richard. Thank you to all those involved.

Oliver Randall
North East branch chair

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