Why project managers are critical to US’ infrastructure revitalization

Right out of the gate, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) was not only set to bolster our country's roads and bridges, airports, electrical grid, water supply and public transit systems, but it was designed to put people to work. To note, according to a new Brookings analysis, there are an estimated 17 million infrastructure-related jobs to be filled by 2031.

While that’s certainly good news, a recent survey conducted by the Project Management Institute (PMI) to explore Americans’ attitudes toward the US infrastructure investment indicates that only 37% of Americans have confidence in infrastructure improvements being made in their communities.

Why the lack of confidence?

Part of it is reputational. Construction projects typically are up to 80% over budget and take 20% longer to complete than scheduled, according to McKinsey data. Engrained public skepticism also is likely a factor, with 75% of respondents in a Partnership for Public Service survey stating concerns around bureaucracy and waste when it comes to government projects.

To counter this skepticism and to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, those tasked with delivering these projects will rely upon the country’s project managers. These professionals are on the front lines of IIJA initiatives around the country and are critical to completing the projects safely, sustainably, and economically.

And therein lies a challenge. According to PMI’s "2021 Talent Gap" report, more than 25 million project management positions will need to be filled by 2030, with manufacturing and construction in highest demand. The number of project managers needed in this industry is expected to surge by 13% from 2019 to 2030—and that’s against a backdrop of an already severe industry labor shortage.

The National Center for Construction Education and Research reports that 41% of current US construction workers are slated to retire by 2031.

So, what can industry leaders do to secure the necessary project management talent to meet our nation’s infrastructure needs and deliver on this investment? Here are some recommendations on how to fill existing and expected infrastructure job openings:

Creative recruitment

The first order of business is to attract more project managers to the industry, including women, who have historically been under-represented in construction. Fortunately, nearly two-thirds (65%) of respondents to PMI’s US infrastructure survey are aware of IIJA, and a majority (52%) agree that infrastructure improvements impact their daily lives.

This awareness of the investment and necessity of bringing these projects to life are important first steps in attracting more project managers to these critical projects. What is needed now is creative recruitment to bridge the gap between project management and infrastructure-related fields.

Possible approaches include apprenticeships to support prospective entry-level employees entering the field and industry partnerships that bring together local businesses, local educational institutions, unions and community organizations. Over time, such partnerships can build a steady pipeline of recruits for the industry.

Upskilling and reskilling

To address the public skepticism noted earlier, the industry will need to renew its commitment to on-time and on-budget performance. That’s where training programs designed to upskill and reskill employees come into play.

The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University estimates that 60% of jobs created by IIJA will require six months of training or less. And a poll by the National Skills Coalition shows that 89% of voters want the infrastructure plan to be accompanied by investments in training for local residents.

According to PMI’s "2021 Talent Gap" report, more than 25 million project management positions will need to be filled by 2030, with manufacturing and construction in highest demand.

All this points to the need for more professional development programs to build and strengthen project management skills. Certifications like Project Management Professional (PMP)® can help ensure that project managers employ best practices while leading complex projects. Certifications like Construction Professional in Built Environment Projects (PMI-CP)™ can provide further assurance that project leaders are trained in all aspects of industry-specific skills, such as construction budgeting, scope and change management, and contract and risk management.

Foster critical "power skills”

In addition to the public skepticism noted earlier, the PMI US infrastructure survey surfaces another area of public concern: Only a minority of Americans (45%) are confident that the IIJA investment will make a difference in their community.

This suggests that project leaders will need to work even more diligently at communicating and fostering positive relationships with community stakeholders. To do so, however, they will need to be well versed not just in technical skills but also in interpersonal skills like communication, collaboration, and creative problem solving.

PMI calls these “power skills” because of their growing importance in the field. PMI research shows that nine out of ten project professionals agree that power skills help them work smarter. That’s why 42% of the questions on the PMP® certification exam focus on power skills—to ensure that PMP certification holders possess these skills.

Prioritizing power skills, committing to upskilling and reskilling employees, and adopting more creative recruitment practices are approaches that can help industry leaders rise to the challenges and opportunities presented by the infrastructure plan. This investment is an unprecedented, once-in-a-generation chance to restore and strengthen the US infrastructure.

It requires—and deserves—an unprecedented response from the industry to turn that opportunity into reality.

Gary Scharf is Leader of North American Client Engagement for the Project Management Institute (PMI). He is responsible for leading the Client Engagement team, growing PMI’s impact in the North American region through organizational relationships, education, and sales. Prior to this role, Scharf served as a Client Engagement Leader for the North America region since joining PMI in April 2021. Prior to that, he served in various business development and sales leadership positions at IT services firms, including Eliassen Group, where he launched and helped build an agile transformation practice.

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