One in eight project managers believe the skills gap is getting worse and 40% want more action to promote apprenticeships and wider recruitment, a new survey by APM has found.
Ahead of National Apprenticeship Week 2024 (February 5-11), APM surveyed over 1,000 project management professionals working in a wide variety of sectors across the UK in the poll carried out by national research company Censuswide.
When asked if they thought the skills gap in their sector was getting better or worse, 43% said that it is either staying the same or getting worse, of which 13% (one in eight) said getting worse. Another 17% of respondents said there wasn't a skills gap in their sector and 40% said it is getting better.
The skills gap is generally defined as the disparity between the skills that employers need or find desirable, and the skills possessed by employees or prospective workers, to meet job role demands. The term was coined in the late 1990s and multiple sectors have long raised concerns over the issue, exacerbated by globalisation, the pace of technological change, and specialised skillsets required.
Respondents who thought the skills gap was getting worse said long-term solutions to bridging the problem were through apprenticeship programmes and recruiting from other professions or sectors (selected by 40%). This was followed by on-the-job training as well as additional training at college, university or apprenticeship level (both 34%), while 10% said ‘I don't see the skills gap being bridged'.
Project management trainee, Abi Fielding, is studying towards a Level 3 Business Administration apprenticeship at AlphaPlus Consultancy, an APM corporate partner and education services business that specialises in standards, assessment and certification in public and private sectors.
Abi, who joined in 2022, said: “I believe apprenticeships offer a unique learning approach, helping young people to kickstart their careers while gaining qualifications and real-life work experience with the additional benefits of a salary and having their foot in the door at a company after completion.
“I chose the apprenticeship route because I find it easier to learn with hands-on experience, and I wanted to develop transferable skills alongside gaining knowledge and a qualification. I don't think I would have progressed the way I have without being in the work environment.”
Abi agreed there needs to be greater awareness of apprenticeships in schools and colleges, saying: “I felt pushed by my sixth form to go to university without them offering or explaining any other alternatives. I thought I had no other option but to go to university, which isn't true.”
She added: “Joining a company that only wants to support my growth has really helped my confidence. I have developed from shadowing senior project managers on large projects, to running them independently in their absence and even leading my own projects.”
Lydia Lewis is studying towards a project management degree apprenticeship at Mott MacDonald, an APM corporate partner and global engineering, management, and development consulting firm. Her four-year qualification is supported by Northumbria University which she attends once per week. Lydia spends the other four days at Mott MacDonald in the workplace and on site. She started in 2022 and is due to graduate in summer 2026, with full-time positions available at Mott MacDonald upon successful qualification completion.
Degree apprenticeships were launched as a flagship policy as part of a package of reforms to the apprenticeships system in England in 2015. Apprentices study at university and work part-time at an employer relevant to their qualification without paying tuition fees.
Lydia, aged 20, said: “I believe apprenticeships can help bridge the skills gap as they allow you to practically expand the skills you learn at university. The most I've personally learnt about project management has been through practically working on a project with other project professionals at Mott MacDonald who are able to advise, share their knowledge and expertise, and give feedback.
“University helps me to understand the theory of why we do certain processes and how they can be improved. But I think the on-the-job training is something that typical university routes miss out on, meaning students may not always be equipped with the relevant skills and knowledge for their profession. On-the-job training makes apprentices more work-ready when they graduate.”
Lydia, who is working on large-scale transport and healthcare infrastructure projects, also said young people would benefit from greater awareness of practical qualifications in schools and colleges.
“I believe 100% there needs to be more talk around apprenticeships in school. We had lots of support sessions around university but there were no sessions on apprenticeships and how to apply for them,” she said. “I also think a lot of people still hold the belief that apprenticeships are for more labour-intensive jobs and university is the only route for other careers.”
Meanwhile, manufacturing (35%) was the third-highest sector out of 17 to say the skills gap is getting worse in APM's survey, behind Government (central or local) and arts & culture (both 38%). Education (32%) was fourth. Engineering (16%) and technology (15%) were also among the highest. The highest age group that also agreed with this viewpoint was the 25-34s (21%), while directors (26%) scored the highest figure when respondents were defined by job title seniority.
When asked if their organisation ran an apprenticeship programme for project professionals, 13% of respondents answered no, while another 81% said yes and 6% did not know.
Professor Adam Boddison OBE, Chief Executive of APM, said: “For decades, the UK has been beset with skills shortages caused by many entrenched and complex reasons, from digital transformation to post-Covid effects, and it is alarming that one in eight project professionals think the problem is getting worse in 2024, despite all the well-publicised and well-intended initiatives in recent years.
“This year's theme for National Apprenticeship Week is ‘Skills for Life' and employers should embrace a culture of constant upskilling and retraining, with artificial intelligence, e-commerce and automation transforming how we live and work at a rapidly increasing rate.
“And while it is positive to see many organisations investing in skills by offering apprenticeships, there is a sizeable minority who aren't doing so currently. Apprenticeships are a fantastic way to help plug the skills gap since they blend a professional qualification with supported learning and development while in a full-time role.
“As the chartered body for the profession, APM champions greater professionalism in projects and driving a better understanding of the importance of the use of expert project professionals in project delivery.”
The survey also found that one in seven (14%) project managers believe there is not enough skilled project professionals to deliver projects successfully in their sector and region.
Adaptability/flexibility (28%) was the highest-rated option when respondents were asked to pick which skills are most needed. Communication and organisation (both 27%) were second, followed by time management (24%), risk management (23%), and leadership (21%).
Currently, almost three in four (73%) UK organisations are experiencing skills shortages, according to the Open University and British Chambers of Commerce's 2023 Business Barometer report which also found 42% of employers have been prevented from filling roles due to a lack of applicants.
To learn more about APM qualifications and training, apprenticeships and degree courses in project management, visit https://www.apm.org.uk/qualifications-and-training