CRITICAL STAFFING SHORTAGE

By Howard Birnberg

A recent survey conducted by the Association for Project Managers notes a dramatic shortage of project managers and technical staff at architectural and engineering firms. The survey examined websites of more than 250 firms published in listings in Engineering News-Record (ENR), from APM members and from others in the APM database. In excess of 85% of firms had open positions listed on their websites-in some cases there were twenty or more available open technical job listings. Civil engineers in particular appeared to be short staffed. While it is likely that some openings listed on websites have been filled and not removed from a site, it is also clear that the staffing shortage is critical. This shortage may result in project delays, client service problems, lost profits to designers and have many other consequences. Entering new geographic areas, expanding existing services, adding new services and staffing existing branch offices may all suffer because of the inability to find technical staff.  Nearly every website examined had at least one opening for a project manager.

As unemployment nationally and in the construction industry has plummeted, the situation has reached a critical level. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), unemployment for architects and engineers in June 2017 dropped to only 3%, a sharp decline from levels in the mid to upper teens found during the Great Recession. As was the case in other professions, many individuals left the industry, retired, or failed to maintain their skills during the recession years.   A great deal of institutional memory and experience was also lost. The present situation is a combination of factors: recession losses; younger staff lacking experience; and very high workloads for most firms. This last factor is a direct result of pent up demand after many years of a depressed construction economy (generally 2008 to 2013). Other parts of the world, such as the European Union have also experienced economic upturns creating even more demand for engineers and architects. According to the U.S. BLS, going forward also looks difficult for employers. Projections to 2024 indicate civil engineers to enjoy 8.4% annual employment growth and environmental engineers, 12.4%.  

PROJECT MANAGERS

The Association for Project Managers is particularly focused on the role of project managers in engineering, architectural, and facilities management organizations. A continuing source of difficulty for many of these organizations is finding, recruiting, and keeping capable project managers. As noted previously, few engineering, architectural, or facilities management programs teach management skills to any degree. As a result, there is a significant shortage of skilled project managers. As increasing numbers of firms recognize the value of project management, the competition for available talent is nearing crisis proportions. In large cities, high job mobility creates the opportunity to recruit project managers from other firms. In many smaller cities, however, the total architectural, engineering, and facilities management community may only number in the hundreds. As a result, experienced managers may be unavailable or cannot be recruited from other local firms. For many firms, there are three basic techniques in obtaining the required talent:

1. Recruit from outside your organization.  This method is often the fastest approach to building your project management staff. Recruiting from other local firms (particularly in smaller communities) may create animosity on the part of your peers, and may also eliminate any hesitancy other firms have about raiding your staff. In addition, the local design community may be somewhat inbred and firms may simply be exchanging each other's weaknesses.  If the local pool of talent is thin, recruiting from other, usually larger cities may be the solution. Unfortunately, attracting staff to smaller communities may not be possible when seeking highly paid, experienced project managers. Offering competitive salaries, fringe benefits, and ownership (or potential) has been used with varying success.

2. Train your own project managers.  In some communities, the only significant source of project managers may be in a firm's own staff. Some firms are reluctant to make a major investment in training their staff for fear of incurring the expense only to lose these people to competing firms (or they may start their own firms) after a few years. Clearly, a certain percentage of your staff may leave for various reasons. With sufficient incentive (e.g., salary, bonus, ownership, profit sharing), many capable staff will remain to help the firm prosper. These individuals will have made the cost of training worthwhile. This training process requires constant budgeting of time and resources for seminars, courses, and publications. Some firms recruit prospects directly from colleges and universities to obtain the most capable talent. They then educate these individuals into project managers compatible with their organization’s philosophy. In large cities, successful firms with experienced teams of project managers also seek younger talent and bring them in as assistant project managers to fill needed slots. In many locations, it is not unusual to find a large percentage of design professionals who have worked for one or two local firms in the past. Many of these firms are noted for their training programs.

3. Recruit an experienced project manager as the mainstay of your staff.  For many firms not experienced with effective project management, it is often wise to recruit one knowledgeable manager as the center of your system. This individual should help establish the project management program, recruit and train younger staff, and serve as a technical and managerial resource. In some organizations, it may not be necessary to recruit an experienced manager, since a senior manager may wish to begin an intensive self-education program to acquire the necessary skills.

KEEPING YOUR MANAGERS

Finding and training your project managers is only the first step. Keeping your hard won managers is just as important. It is the responsibility of senior management to provide for the psychological and financial well-being of these individuals. The obvious incentives of competitive salaries, bonuses, profit sharing, and a fringe benefit package are most important. Project managers must also have a level of authority that matches their level of responsibility in the firm. Second-guessing and countermanding their decisions will quickly destroy your system. As a result, many of your managers may become interested in opportunities with other organizations.

Well-managed organizations are always training younger staff in the principles and applications of project management. Junior staff can assist experienced project managers as a method to learn required skills. Over time, they may be given the opportunity to manage their own smaller, less complicated projects. In this way, individuals are available to meet the needs of an ever-changing workload.   In smaller organizations with limited staff, most technical employees should be given basic project management training. It is vital that the required tools and systems are in place to assist in managing projects.

Engineering, architectural, and facilities management organizations should avoid the Silicon Valley syndrome. Tech firms are notorious for staff turnover. Capable people are constantly seeking new opportunities and leaving employers to struggle to find replacements.   

Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers.  He may be reached at hbirnberg@gmail.com, 312-664-2300, website APMINFO.com

Howard Birnberg