AXELOS ProPath, the world's most powerful project, programme and portfolio best practice certifications

Project management graduates in transition

Martin Vaughan
March 17, 2011

One of the lasting memories of my work experience stint at a regional council as part of my civil engineering degree was how useless I felt. The disconnect between what the council needed me to do, and the skills and experience I had obtained through my undergraduate studies, was significant. I still remember the level of frustration felt by both myself and my supervisor at the council.

Fast forward 25 years, I now find myself not only an employer of graduates but also a university lecturer. Has much changed over this time, how should we approach today’s graduates?

Expectations mismatch

Industry still expects graduate students to leave university ready to work, with demonstrated learning skills and some applied skills in and around the profession for which they apply. The reality is, most university students graduate with extensive ‘pure’ knowledge but limited ‘applied’ knowledge. Arguably, the focus of university education is to create a ‘thinker’ rather than a ‘doer’. The result is, industry needs to take a broader view of graduate capability and modify their short-term expectations.

As an employer heavily exposed to postgraduate studies, we have minimal expectations of a graduate’s ability to ‘do’. Our recruitment process focuses on communication skills, ambition and overall astuteness. We require a high standard of written and oral skills and assume a high level of general IT skill. We seek people with general work experience, including part-time jobs not necessarily related to studies, to ensure people have an understanding of the nature of work. Sometimes, people who undertake postgraduate studies directly after their undergraduate studies lack an understanding of the nature of work.

The Employability Skills for the Future report, identifies both personal attributes and generic skills, which is more than appropriate for employing graduates into a project management graduate program. While some can be assessed through discussion with referees, others will need to be assessed through interviewing. Some attributes can only be assessed in the longer term. Employers must realise that there will be successes and failures in a graduate program; some graduates will not work out. Some attributes are very difficult to change, so care is needed in recruitment.

Skills are easier to assess; open questions, both written and verbal, together with a challenging exercise or test may be effective. An application process that requires genuine thought and written responses is highly recommended.

The impact of Gen Y

There is a lot written about the expectations of Gen Y when it comes to the workplace. The previous approach of ‘doing your time’ and proving yourself prior to promotion is no longer attractive. Even holding young people beyond two years is a major challenge for many organisations. Multi-tasking, social networking, living at home longer and ‘never fail’ education, are all factors that make working with Gen Y challenging. The reality is most employers and coaches and mentors will be Gen X or Baby Boomers, so will struggle to relate on a number of levels.

As an employer, we need to adapt to become more flexible, more connected and more open to change. Assuming we are employing graduates for their thinking skills, we must accept that they will find different, and often better, ways of doing things. The advent of collaboration tools within project management is an example of this innovation, as are discussion forums, blogs, wikis, social networking sites and the like.

The other aspect of Gen Y we embrace is expecting that people will not stay for the long term. Rather than structuring a program around benefits to our organisation at the end of the program, we have structured the program around benefits along the way so both the graduates and our organisation can enjoy the journey rather than focus on the destination. We expect our graduates to leave at the end of the program, although we would obviously be delighted if they stayed.

Learning from the past

In the trade sector, apprenticeships are becoming more popular after several years of neglect. The basic apprenticeship model has proven effective and has withstood the test of time. Young people are employed in a program lasting up to four years, with tangible accreditation at the end, and a blend of on-the-job and formal classroom training along the way. Their income stays relatively low, but is offset by the training they receive. Employers benefit through a low-cost resource, as well as the satisfaction of helping a young person through the passing on of knowledge and skill.

While it would not be popular to call a graduate program an apprenticeship, we have adopted some of the basic aspects of an apprenticeship in our program, which spans four years, with interim accreditation after two years. We employ primarily on the basis of soft skills, with graduates having either business or IT degrees, with one graduate having completed law/psychology.

Martin Vaughan
Martin Vaughan started his career as a specialist planner/scheduler in construction before moving to defence, then into IT. He progressed through project management and program management into consulting and advisory roles. Meanwhile he maintained an interest in tools and technology, on the way building and managing small businesses and squeezing in some lecturing in IT Project Management at the University of Melbourne. He is now a director and senior consultant at Core Consulting Group.
Read more