How have project professionals in the engineering sector been handling Brexit challenges and what opportunities lay ahead, asks Professor Adam Boddison, chief executive of APM

In the lead up to Brexit, there were a lot of questions around how things would operate between UK companies and their EU counterparts. As the second anniversary of the UK’s departure approached, we wanted to find out how project professionals in the engineering sector have been navigating these changes and what challenges and opportunities have arisen along the way.

Earlier this year, Association for Project Management (APM) surveyed 1000 project professionals to discover their perceived impact of Brexit on their work. The verdict is clear: over three-quarters of project professionals still have concerns about Brexit’s impact on projects, citing increased costs, disruptions and shortages as the main sources of worry.

Amongst the concerns, however, there is optimism arising from the potential for new opportunities. Below, I explore the biggest hurdles for project managers in the aerospace and engineering sector, their hopes and practical steps that leaders in the industry can take to support their ongoing success.

Challenges, concerns and opportunities

Prior to January 2020, the most anticipated challenge that project professionals in the engineering sector expected to arise from Brexit was disruption to collaboration with EU partners. Across all sectors, project managers highlighted increased project costs as their second greatest concern. Among those working in engineering, project delays came second.

At the same time, prior to Brexit, there were high hopes for better access to materials, equipment, skills and knowledge as well as the prospect of faster project delivery.

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There’s no denying Brexit has impacted the way projects of all sizes are planned and executed. Our survey revealed that, at the current time, 91 per cent of aerospace and engineering project professionals have current concerns about the effects of Brexit. The main stress points are increased project costs and shortages of materials and equipment.

Lessons learned

The road ahead is unlikely to be a smooth one. In addition to Brexit-related concerns, project professionals also cite the ongoing impact of the pandemic and the need for digital innovation among the major challenges facing their profession. The recent World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report illustrates widespread concern for a volatile and fractured future.

Rather than be consumed by the sentiment, I encourage leaders in engineering and aerospace to take this opportunity to let their project managers shine by doing what they do best. Historically, they have toiled away behind the scenes, but the profession is very much coming into its own. If we have learned anything in the past two years, it’s that project practitioners play a vital role in responding effectively to major crises through their direct involvement in planning, organising and directing complex projects.

There are some key steps leaders can take to help enable project managers’ success, which can, in turn, support the ongoing success of their organisation.

To start, give project professionals the same status within your organisation as marketing, finance and HR professionals. Their function overlaps with so many others, so giving them this recognition will help enable their work. Build this by ensuring they have strategic influence at executive board level. You might do this by designating a Chief Project Officer or Chief Transformation Officer. Having a voice at the table ensures projects form a critical part of strategic development; essential in aerospace and engineering.

Many project professionals are hidden behind the guise of a different job title, from events or contracts manager to site supervisor or account manager. Be aware that a number of your people may be ‘accidental project managers’. You can support them by helping secure recognition for their skillsets, through Chartered Project Professional status, for example.

Finally, create a culture where the dynamic conditions for project success are routinely realised. These include excellent interpersonal skills, training and qualifications, strong team ethos, technology and data, effective knowledge management, sustainability and diversity.

There’s a simpatico relationship between engineering and project management, evidenced through certain common strengths: risk evaluation, decision making and agility. As we forge the path to net zero while continuing to navigate the ongoing challenges presented by Brexit, these skills are more important than ever. Leaders who fail to cultivate them and support their project professionals risk being left behind.

Professor Adam Boddison, chief executive of APM