Talent shortage in Australia: How power skills can solve the skills gap

Businesses across Australia are contending with a skills gap and talent shortage, with the number of occupations experiencing a significant skills shortage almost doubling over the past year. Despite this, most business leaders continue to focus on business development. These pressures make workforce planning, hiring, and preparing for the future challenging.

Post-pandemic skills that have seen the highest levels of demand across Australian organisations include leadership, collaboration, adaptability, digital fluency, and critical thinking; what we used to call ‘soft’ skills are now known by the Project Management Institute (PMI) as ‘power’ skills. These human-centric skills are critical for Australians to work together as a team to benefit their personal and organisation’s success and business continuity.

Despite the Project Management Institute’s latest report finding that nine in ten employees agree that power skills are critical to helping them work smarter, around 30% of businesses do not prioritise development in this space. Employees lacking essential power skills may find fulfilling the role’s responsibilities hard, even if they have the necessary technical proficiency.

And in the age of increasing automation and AI tech, employees must be looking to future-proof the skills that no tech or robot can replace. It’s time for leaders to take charge, reset and focus on equipping employees with skills to build individual capabilities and achieve goals.

Power skills vs technical skills

For several years now, Project Management Institute has been advocating the importance of power skills. According to our latest research, the top-rated ones for Australian workers are communication, problem-solving, collaborative leadership and strategic thinking.

However, PMI’s recent research shows that Australian organisations invest only one quarter (25%) of annual budgets in training and development on power skills, compared to more than half (51%) on technical skills like agile practices or proficiency in collaboration tools.

Project professionals have confirmed these figures, reporting spending almost half (46%) of their development hours on technical skills and less than one-third (29%) on power skills.

Also, nearly half (47%) of project professionals say their firm did not cover power skills in job interviews for hiring or promotion, highlighting that power skills should be widely expressed in job descriptions and discussed as a requirement for career growth. Whether referred to as power, soft, or human skills, these proficiencies can be vital to an employee’s success.

Power skills and the project nature of work

As the last several decades have seen the emergence of project-based approaches to work – from manufacturing and construction to software and medical devices – organisations of all types and sizes across the globe are increasingly rethinking how work gets done.

Organisations now plan work around numerous defined tasks and group their teams according to the knowledge, experience, and capabilities they bring to specific projects. Project leaders align deliverables against business needs and objectives, not specific job roles; the more this occurs, the more multi-skilled and flexible teams and firms need to be.

Think of agile teams where one team member can fulfil several different traditional roles, stepping in and stepping up for each other. With a project-based approach, leaders can innovate faster, quickly drawing skills as needed by using workforce ecosystems.

Power skills are vital in ensuring successful project outcomes. PMI’s Narrowing the Talent Gap report indicates that power skills are the critical capabilities project managers need.

And we have seen several other organisations echo this emphasis through publications that connect power skills to outcomes. Our research further indicates that firms prioritising power skills are significantly better at completing projects that meet business goals. They also experience substantially less scope creep and significantly less budget loss if a project fails.

What can be done to improve employee power skills?

Organisations that emphasise power skills will see clear advantages in the age of increasing project-based work. Organisational culture requires a commitment to factors that drive project success: benefits realisation maturity, organisational agility and project management maturity. Project Management Institute reveals the following approaches for leaders who need guidance on embedding power skills into their organisation’s learning culture:

  1. Understand the connection between project success and power skills. Step outside the iron triangle of scope, cost and time. Notice the power skills which positively contribute to the everyday dynamics of project management.
  2. Focus on the power skills most tied to fulfilling organisational objectives — communication, problem-solving, collaborative leadership and strategic thinking — and bake them into the company’s DNA. Have project management leaders model these critical skills and communicate their importance consistently.
  3. Emphasise the value of power skills by connecting them to hiring and ongoing performance. Start talking to employees during recruitment by emphasising power skills training as a benefit of employment. Build power skills into their career development plans, and track their mastery of these skills during performance evaluations.
  4. Evaluate professional development and training programming to ensure it reflects the organisation’s commitment to building employee power skills. Back that commitment up by allocating the appropriate funding to power skills offerings.
  5. Consider introducing team-based assessments of power skills as an additional way to evaluate these aptitudes in context and reinforce their importance in the organisation.

Power skills can redefine success for project professionals and firms; those who use these approaches can see a clear return on their investment. While technical skills and business acumen will always be necessary for project management and any leadership role, our research shows leaders must prioritise the development of power skills to drive successful outcomes, a better work environment and well-rounded teams primed for future success.

Annie Sheehan is the ANZ Head at Project Management Institute.