Should We Be Concerned about the Aging Project Management Workforce?

Last week ESI International, the project management training company, announced the release of their annual top 10 trends in project management for 2015. I always enjoy reading through their listings and this year there were a couple that caught my eye. Both are in relation to talent management – around the organisation’s approach to project managers in their organisation and about finding and hiring project managers.

For completeness here is the full list:

ESI¹s top 10 trends for project management include:

  1. Lofty expectations: PMs need to become adept at managing gaps between the constraints of cloud-based platforms and the business expectations.
  2. Out-of-whack: Talent management within the PM community comes back into focus.
  3. Fuel for the hybrid: As the pace of change continues to accelerate, hybrid project methods will become the norm.
  4. Too little, too late: The ability to find and hire top PM talent is dwindling.
  5. Bottom¹s up: Organisations must build bottom-up processes to link project outcomes to organisational strategy.
  6. Ignore them at your own peril: Project managers will continue to be ignored and not get the coaching and mentoring they are screaming for.
  7. Run!: Project managers continue to sacrifice project transparency as they flee from conflict and avoid difficult conversations
  8. Change is coming: The disciplines of change management and project management continue to merge as PMs become responsible for delivering project and business outcomes.
  9. Knocking at the door: Project management and business strategy better align to the benefit of the organisation.
  10. Culture shock: Organisational culture becomes a bigger consideration in risk management practices.


Let’s look at those two listings in more detail:


Talent management will make gains as a key focus for project organizations, again. According to the Project Management Institute’s (PMI’s) Pulse of the Profession® in-depth study, organizations that successfully align talent strategy to organizational strategy have an average project success rate 14 percentage points higher than those not aligned, and consequently risk 50% fewer project dollars. That might sound like common sense, but more often than not organizations get it wrong. For many, the default practices of hiring only for the immediate need, outsourcing whenever possible, and developing talent later are starting to take their toll. In 2015, the pendulum will start to move back toward a more strategic approach to talent management for the project community.

A day late and a dollar short.

The cost of senior project talent continues to increase as demand rises and the availability of seasoned professionals dwindles. According to an ESI Project Manager Salary and Talent study, 83%of project organizations reported that they were understaffed, and 44% of those positions were for senior project professionals. This number will continue to rise as other macro supply and demand trends continue. Increased regulation and compliance, emerging technologies, rising globalization and several other business trends continue to generate increasing numbers of projects. Since these trends appear to be accelerating, it seems obvious that the demand for projects and the people who manage them is not going to level off anytime soon. Supply trends are also working against project organizations. According to PMI®, senior project managers are retiring at an increasing rate with over 60% of PMI members now over the age of 40. PMI is forecasting that 30% of project managers will be leaving the workforce by 2018.
An existing shortage of supply, an aging workforce, and a growing demand for projects all add up to a serious problem for organizations not actively developing a bench of talent.

Both trends point to potential problems for organisations when it comes to hiring the right project managers and then retaining them. As if this is not enough of a concern, there is also the aging workforce problem to contend with too. In our previous Project Management Benchmark Reports we have been able to see this ‘conveyor belt’ effect, with the older workforce dropping off yet not as many younger practitioners there to replace them. But should we be concerned about this aging project management workforce problem?

If we read PMI’s 2013 report Project Management Between 2010 and 2020, where it is estimated that 15.7 million new project management roles will be added globally by 2020 (in the UK it is estimated to be 946,648) we should be concerned yet if we look at how the existing older end of the workforce initially became project managers themselves we can take some comfort in the fact that project management in the future is not totally doomed.

The vast majority of older project managers became project managers often after a second or third career. They were initially engineers, constructors, manufacturers and IT technicians. All operational roles which still exist in today’s businesses. It was only after they had built considerable experience and skills in their chosen fields (domain experience) that they became project managers. Often they were chosen because of this prior business experience and in lots of cases they were already managers of people.

To address the growing demand for project managers now and in the future we shouldn’t necessarily be looking at the numbers of people coming into the profession at a young age because these are only part of the story. What we should be more interested in is the potential proportion of the current workforce which have the potential to be tomorrow’s project managers. Wouldn’t it be in an organisation’s best interest to be identifying their potential project managers now? The people in the workforce who show an aptitude for areas like team management, leadership, influence and communication should be the ones being identified, encouraged and supported to fill the project management talent gap of tomorrow.

Personally I’m not convinced we have a ticking age bomb where suddenly there aren’t enough project managers to go around. What I am concerned about is that we have failed to learn from the history of how people became project managers and it looks like nothing new has been learnt. If organisations could identify their potential project managers today they wouldn’t need to worry so much about their talent shortages and gaps of tomorrow. I think the mantra should be grow your own, starting today.

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  1. Lindsay, we gotta remember that ESI is in the TRAINING business and I would say their “research” is heavily biased towards creating a real or perceived need for their services….

    At least in construction, we rarely see construction project managers on any major projects who are younger than 45 and with so many degrees being granted in construction project management, I don’t see any unique shortages at least in that sector. Actually, I see more shortages in the trades than I do the engineering and construction management end of things.

    Aerospace (NASA et al) may well be a different story but given that people my age (Boomer) are either not able to afford to retire or choose not to retire until we are well in our 70’s, I would tend to discount ESI’s research, at least on that point.

    Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

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