What I See When I Gaze Into My PM's Crystal Ball

IN ONLY THREE professions can one who practices them be consistently wrong and still be able to make a living. Those are weather forecasters, economists and so-called All those professions depend on our fear of the unknown, especially the unknowns that concern our pocketbooks in some way. Since Ive been writing my column for CONTRACTOR, Ive been asked about what I see as the future of project management,

IN ONLY THREE professions can one who practices them be consistently wrong and still be able to make a living. Those are weather forecasters, economists and so-called “futurists.” All those professions depend on our fear of the unknown, especially the unknowns that concern our pocketbooks in some way.

Since I’ve been writing my column for CONTRACTOR, I’ve been asked about what I see as the future of project management, estimating and scheduling as professions and the technology to come that will drive them even more than it does now.

I can say that your guesses might be as good as mine over the next 30 years. Let’s dust off my old crystal ball and gaze into the uncertain future of project management.

Prediction No. 1: There will be fewer project managers, both in terms of sheer numbers as well as percentage of trade workforce, but project management as a profession will never die. The marketplace will exert pressure to keep sales, general and administrative overhead, including project management budgets, as low as possible, but there will always be a need for PMs.

Middle managers such as PMs are a luxury that upper managers afford because they don’t want to manage jobs themselves. So project management employment opportunities will become scarcer over the next three decades but won’t disappear.

Project managers’ typical workloads will become heavier as in-house clerical support will decrease, which will lead to higher turnover and dropout rates, as work weeks go from 50-60 hours to 70-80+ hours. Compensation will rise slightly to accommodate this fact, but not proportionally.

Prediction No. 2: As the percentage of the U.S. non-Anglo population rises, needing to know how to speak conversational Spanish will become a required skill. I say this as a matter of fact, not a matter of prejudice, since I don’t believe in the concept of race.

That said, in my 20-some years as a PM, the percentage of qualified Hispanic tradespeople in the workforce has gone from near zero to sometimes half of those available to hire. For PMs just starting out, learn conversational Spanish now, while you’re young and it’s still easy for you.

Prediction No. 3: Until desktop computers reach teraflop speed (1 trillion computing cycles per second) and unless the software keeps up with the hardware, human estimators will never be replaced by computers.

I was the systems analyst and systems architect behind the second digitizer-based computerized estimating system for the trades created back in the early ‘80s. I’ve also used AutoCAD since Version 1.7. Ever since those early days, the promise of replacing estimators with AutoCAD LISP routines has been promoted as being “just a short while away from becoming reality.” Don’t buy it!

It is true that 99% of all building and building components, including mechanical systems, are designed using AutoCad software. It would be logical to think someone could come up with a routine to pull out the material and equipment from those designs and create an accurate estimate from it. It ain’t gonna happen, not any time soon.

When the software advances to where all space conflicts are noted and resolved during the design — and separate coordination drawings done after the plans are on the street aren’t needed any longer — then, yeah, maybe the next step a few years from that point would be a LISP software routine that creates accurate estimates from the design. It’s not worth holding your breath.

Prediction No. 4: Unless women within the borders of the United States start having lots of babies or we throw open our borders to mass immigration, the building booms of the recent past will never be seen again. This will affect job opportunities for PMs and is part of my reason for Prediction No. 1.

It’s a fact that women in America are producing children at a rate less than needed just to replace the current population. It’s a guarded opinion that America’s tightly controlled immigration policies won’t be relaxed soon.

Without continued growth of America’s population, job opportunities of all kinds will become scarcer, and jobs within building trades, which are more dependent on total growth rates, could suffer.

Prediction No. 5: Job schedules will become even more driven, to the point of near-absurdity. This bodes well for those that make their living doing Critical Path Method lies, or should I say schedules, but it’s going to be hell for the rest of us.

Contractors will be pushed like crazy to do jobs in half the time that has typically been allowed in the past with no additional compensation for accelerated schedules, and constantly threatened that the work will be given to others willing to try.

This rush to time-to-usefulness will be good for contractors and PMs well versed in design/build, which will be a welcomed return to our roots.

Prediction No. 6: Project managers as temporary hired guns will become more commonplace. As the total number of jobs shrink and the total dollar value of contracts shrink, companies will be forced to reduce overhead burden as much as possible. See my predictions above.

One way this will be accomplished is by not having a PM cadre in place but by having access to an outside hiring pool much like a union hall where contractors will be able to pick and choose a PM for a specific job. You may wind up as a PM caught up in this web of rotating employers with lots of non-paid free time between jobs and few benefits. Unless you’re lucky and wind up as a full-time employee somewhere, you just might wind up free-lancing your whole career.

H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor and project manager with unlimited Master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. He may be reached by calling 919/851-9550, or via e-mail at [email protected].