PROJECTING THE FUTURE SERIES - CHALLENGE PAPER SIX
THE FUTURE OF WORK AND SKILLS
This is the sixth and final Challenge paper in the Projecting the Future series and in some ways, it brings the conversation full circle to themes raised in our launch paper.
Rather than focusing on the project profession exclusively, however, it takes a broader look at the changes under way in how we work and the implications for skills.
It asks: what are the changes taking place in the world of work? What are skills will be needed for future success, particularly in the project profession? And how should the profession as a whole get ahead of the curve in meeting the needs of the future?
THE BIG ISSUES
Digital transformation and the fourth industrial revolution, the climate crisis, longer human lifespans: the powerful dynamics of change and complexity which have been explored by the Projecting the Future series will drive profound changes in the nature of work in the years ahead. The skills needed to succeed are set to change significantly – and they could make professional project skills more highly-valued than ever before.
As the best organisations in every sector recognise, having the right skills* is a pre-requisite of success. At a policy level, they are recognised as critical drivers of both organisational and national productivity and economic performance, yet the UK faces substantial problems related to skills.
As the influential Industrial Strategy Council stated in its 2020 report: “The UK is facing an unprecedented skills challenge, with most UK companies reporting skills shortages and 40 per cent of the workforce having skills significantly mismatched with their jobs.”
The national discussion about skills has often focused in recent years on the importance of STEM skills – science, technology, engineering and maths. But the importance of so-called soft or people skills is also increasingly recognised.
Both areas are important for project professionals in a world where increasing amounts of work are set to be automated by sophisticated digital technology and AI. In the world of ‘project management 4.0’ (see the Projecting the Future launch paper), interpersonal skills, communication, relationship-building and leadership will be every bit as important as new technical skills like data analytics. Tomorrow’s adaptive professional will have to master both areas.
Indeed, the success of project professionals in developing their skills is a matter of significance not only for people in the profession, but for everyone with a stake in the performance of business, public services and the government. After all, the project profession is responsible for delivering a substantial amount of economic value: as PwC research for APM has shown, 2.13m people are employed in the project sector in the UK, representing 7.9% of the total, and generating £156.6bn of Gross Value Added (GVA) annually. As the pace of change in the economy has accelerated, the rise of project working has led researchers to talk of the ‘project economy’ perhaps it should be described as the ‘project society’. With profound change ahead, the economic value and importance of the profession is only set to grow, and the ability of project professionals to deliver excellence will have ever bigger consequences for society.
In many ways, the last 20-30 years have seen work transformed. The years ahead could see even more rapid change in how work is carried out. Factors like globalisation and the rise of virtual teams (now dramatically brought to the fore by Covid-19), changing employment relationships, flexible organisational structures, open innovation models, more diverse workforces, and changing corporate cultures will all have an impact on the skillsets expected of tomorrow’s professionals. Work is often increasingly complex, carried out in uncertain and unpredictable environments, demanding different behaviours and skills from leaders, including project professionals.
Work is changing. Project professionals’ skills must keep pace.
OPPORTUNITIES & CHALLENGES
OPPORTUNITIES FOR SKILLS IN WAKE OF COVID-19 CRISIS
Among the many side-effects of the coronavirus crisis has been a delay in launch of the government’s National Infrastructure Strategy. Responding to the announcement at the time of the Budget in March 2020, APM chief executive Debbie Dore urged the government to use the extra time created by the delay to reflect on its proposals for skills development. “Investing in people, as well as material resources, will create the skills necessary to deliver projects now and in the future,” she said. “Project professionals will need to develop skills that can address emerging challenges and deliver sustainable solutions. Whether projects form part of plans for tackling disease, building modern high-speed railways, tackling the effects of climate change or planning the construction of new homes, it is important that people have the right attributes and skillsets to adapt and thrive.” To what extent will changes in how people work, such as the boom in remote working – and the benefits, such as reductions in CO2 emissions – be sustained beyond the immediate coronavirus crisis?
With technology set to take over increasing areas of work, there is growing recognition of the value of so-called ‘soft’ and ‘human’ skills, which are less susceptible to replication by technology. Essentially human abilities – such as being creative, defining and solving problems, or engaging, influencing and inspiring other people – will be at a premium. This has been a theme in extensive work by different bodies.
LEARNING THROUGH LIFE
The extent of change across the economy, combined with expected rises in life expectancy and health – and hence in the duration of working lives, as highlighted in the fourth Projecting the Future challenge paper on the ‘100 year life’ – mean that learning new skills will be an imperative throughout life. Thomas Friedman, the influential New York Times columnist, has written: “The notion that we can go to college for four years and then spend that knowledge for the next 30 is over. If you want to be a lifelong employee anywhere today, you have to be a lifelong learner.” Everyone has a responsibility for their own development, he adds: “More is now on you. And that means self-motivation to learn and keep learning becomes the most important life skill.”
SKILLS DRIVE PERFORMANCE AND PROSPERITY
Analysis by the CBI has shown just how important skills are to business productivity and performance: in fact, people’s education and skills levels are the biggest predictor of differences in productivity levels between the different parts of the UK. At a time when the government has committed to ‘levelling up’ across the UK, skills policy could be more important than ever. Skills do not only drive individual opportunity: they are also pivotal to organisational productivity and to macroeconomic outcomes. As the recent report of the 2070 Commission noted, action is needed to raise the skills of every part of the UK to the levels of the best. The Commission has called for a national plan to raise attainment levels.
To view the full list of challenges and opportunities, download the challenge paper at the bottom of the page.
A PROJECT PROFESSION VIEW – AN ADAPTIVE PROFESSION
What are the potential implications of the changes ahead in work and skills for how you work? And how might they affect the project profession more broadly?
How people work is set to be profoundly reshaped in the years ahead. Underpinned by the transformational technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there are complex factors in play which will have significant implications for project professionals. If the project profession is to be the engine of change, what must it do to thrive?
One important answer is to cultivate a ‘growth mindset’: a commitment to continually learning new skills over the course of a career. Credited to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, the idea of the growth mindset is contrasted to the ‘fixed’ mindset, or the belief that talent is innate. It has also been described as the shift from ‘know-it-all’ to ‘learn-it-all’. One leader who has championed this notion is Satya Nadella, who has put it at the centre of his leadership of Microsoft since becoming chief executive in 2014. By extension, the idea of the growth mindset suggests that sustainable business success requires support for employees’ ongoing learning and personal development.
At a time of longer working lives and technological disruption at work, that responsibility is becoming more and more important. We believe that we are entering the era of the adaptive professional. Project professionals will need to respond and adapt to – and in fact, to shape and lead – change in any number of fields. Certain technical skills, such as those relating to data analytics or the automation of our work, will be much in demand. At the same time, the human factor will be more important than ever, as project professionals are tasked with pulling together, influencing and leading diverse groups to achieve transformational outcomes.
Learning throughout our lives
In the face of far-reaching change, it is surely time for a complete rethink of traditional approaches to learning and development. Education cannot simply finish at 18 or 21: today’s young professionals could face technological job disruption several times over their working lives, which will add to the urgency of providing opportunities to retrain and adapt. Indeed, the idea of more-or-less linear progression through education, a career, and retirement is already breaking down. One alternative is a ‘learning, leveraging, longevity’ model. This recognises that people are increasingly likely to move back and forth between learning and work over time. The potential advantages including greater control for individuals, a recognition that long and diverse working lives will require periods of study and re-training, and flexibility, enabling a better balance between work and other parts of life (like family care) when needed.
As Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott have argued in their work on the ‘100 year life’, merely “brushing up” on the latest knowledge will not be enough: people will need to make serious investments in learning and retraining. Making sure that happens will take coordinated thinking by employers, government, professional bodies and individuals alike, to develop a shared long-term vision and commitment to provide education and training through life. Yet for now, funding is still mainly oriented around learning at the start of life. How could that be changed?
One approach would be to introduce Personal Training Accounts in the UK. This idea has been proposed by influential thinktanks including the RSA and Social Market Foundation, drawing on the system that has successfully been used in Singapore. Such accounts could give people control over funding for their personal development throughout their lives. That is critical: there has to be support for professional education at every stage of life, both providing a strong pipeline of people entering the professions – building on the momentum generated by the Trailblazer Apprenticeships in recent years – and enabling established professionals to continue learning and to retrain where needed.
As the SMF also argues, various other elements are needed for a successful policy approach to the “50-year career”: support for modular learning, a focus on workers in industries at particular risk of automation, and support from the healthcare system for longer working lives. This has to add up to a coherent system, as the cross-party Skills Commission pointed out in its 2020 report, where it called for a long-term framework for skills and lifelong learning. As the Commission warned, employers have been struggling to engage with a fragmented system. One result is visible in the high numbers of people who have been denied access to training and development at work, which risks creating a two-tier society divided between those used to learning, and those who are not. The UK and the global economy will be hard pushed to recover from the economic shock created by the coronavirus pandemic – we cannot afford to neglect the skills agenda in the years ahead.
KEY QUESTIONS FOR THE PROJECT PROFESSION
Throughout Projecting the Future, we want to explore the questions that matter about the future of the project profession.
We want to hear from you: from individuals, teams, departments, organisations, institutions and communities. We want your views, ideas and evidence relating to these questions – and we are keen to hear about case studies that show how the project profession is starting to adapt to these challenges.
VIEW KEY QUESTIONS AND JOIN THE CONVERSATION
- How is project work changing in your organisation or sector? What factors are driving those changes?
- As a result of these changes, how will the skills needed by the project profession change over the next 5-10 years?
- What skills will be needed from project professionals at different career stages?
- How can your organisation respond to these challenges and develop project professionals fit for the future? What action has it already taken?
- What action is needed from others – e.g. government, educators, professional bodies – to ensure that there is a strong pipeline of project professionals coming into the labour market with the right skills and abilities over the next 5-10 years?
- Are skills and learning given sufficient consideration in the projects that you are involved with today? Could projects be better used to generate learning and lasting improvements in skills? How?
- What role should APM, as the Chartered body for the profession, play in the future?
- Is there anything else that hasn’t been covered here that should be discussed in relation to the future of work and future skills needs in the project profession?
- And finally – what steps will you take to prepare for the future of work?