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Skills gap ‘getting worse or not improving’ 

Four in 10 project managers who work in engineering think the skills gap in their sector is either getting worse or not improving, while over half believe apprenticeships are the best way to fix the problem, a new survey by the Association for Project Management (APM), the chartered membership organisation for the project profession, has found.

Ahead of National Apprenticeship Week 2024 (February 5-11), APM surveyed over 1,000 project management professionals in several UK sectors including engineering in the poll carried out by national research company Censuswide.

When asked if they thought the skills gap was getting better or worse in their sector, 41% of the engineering project managers said it was either staying the same (26%) or getting worse (15%). Another 50% said it was getting better and 9% said there wasn’t a skills gap in their sector.

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.

The engineering project managers who thought the skills gap was getting worse said long-term solutions to bridging the problem over the next five years were through apprenticeship programmes (selected by 56%). This was followed by wider recruitment (33%) and additional training at college, university or apprenticeships (22%).

Case studies: Lydia Lewis and Callum Barber, degree apprentices at Mott MacDonald

Lydia Lewis and Callum Barber are studying towards project management degree apprenticeships at Mott MacDonald, an APM corporate partner and global engineering, management, and development consulting firm. Their four-year qualifications are supported by Northumbria University which they attend once per week. They spend the other four days at Mott MacDonald in the workplace and on site. They started in 2022 and 2021 and are due to graduate in summer 2026 and 2025 respectively, 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, 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, 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.”

She said greater awareness of project management as a career choice is also needed, saying: “Before finding the project management apprenticeship at Mott MacDonald, I wasn’t aware it was in such big demand, especially at my age. It wasn’t a career path that was ever mentioned to me in school. This led me to believe it was a job for people more experienced in certain industries.

“Due to project management being very people-based, every day is different. I think it is a very attractive career path if people were more aware of it and what it entails.”

Callum, 20, who works on light rail projects at Mott MacDonald, added: “I chose a degree apprenticeship instead of going to university because I wanted to have the opportunity to ‘earn while I learn’ and stay debt free. The experience of learning on the job has been invaluable.

Callum also agreed there needs to be greater awareness of degree apprenticeships in schools and colleges, saying: “At sixth form, there was a huge push to get every student to go to university and very few discussions about instead studying towards an apprenticeship. I had to do my own research and decide that apprenticeships were right for me.”

Meanwhile, almost one in five (22%) engineering project managers said their organisation doesn’t run an apprenticeship programme for project professionals.

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 four in 10 project management professionals in the engineering sector think the problem is either getting worse or staying the same 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 engineering companies 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.”

Meanwhile, the survey found that one in seven (14%) engineering project managers believe there was not enough skilled project professionals to deliver projects successfully in their sector and region. Communication (50%) was the highest-rated option when respondents were asked to pick which skills are most needed, followed by organisation and risk management (both 38%).

31 January 2024

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