Alex Alexandrescu | 26 Aug 2022 | 7 min read

Businesses don’t just compete in specific markets for sales and capital, they also compete for emerging talent – where the arena is the global economy.

For example, if you are a software business, you are in a revenue race against other businesses vying for the same budgets. But you are also in a talent race against any other organisation on the planet that needs a software developer, a data scientist, a designer, etc.

In the long term, as technology becomes more commoditised, the war for talent will only intensify. Companies’ main source of competitive advantage will lie in their workforce’s ability to quickly and consistently turn ideas into reality.

But how do you structure work to manifest ideas into reality?

Through projects. From the Great Pyramids to the James Webb Space Telescope, the world has been built and transformed through projects.

Technology is accelerating the pace of this transformation, giving rise to what the Project Management Institute calls the ‘Project Economy’. More and more businesses are moving away from traditional role-based work structures and towards modular, project-based work.

In this article, we will explore how employers can thrive in the project economy and sidestep war for talent by focusing on early careers talent acquisition.

James Webb Space Telescope Flying over the Great Pyramids

The future of work: Projects vs. Operations

To better understand how the future might look like, it’s useful to study the past.

Thanks to Henry Ford and his buddy Frederick Winslow Taylor, who coined the term ‘scientific management’, productivity skyrocketed in the 20th century. Ford Motor Company was able to produce over 15mil Model T cars between 1908 and 1927 because it had designed ‘operations’ to streamline work, create efficiency, and increase productivity. To this day, these operations include the core activities of running a business: sales, customer service, manufacturing, finance, HR, etc.

Marked by the publishing of the Agile Manifesto in 2001, the 21st century saw the rise of projects as a way to manage different types of work more flexibly, adapt to changes, and further enhance productivity.

Where operations are a means of running organisations, or exploiting current capabilities, projects are a means of changing organisations, or exploring new competencies.

According to HBR author Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, today, every company operates in a changing and often disrupted environment. This has shifted the balance of work. Operations used to represent stability whilst projects were transitory. Now, operations are transitory, keeping things afloat between projects.

In 2017, the Project Management Institute estimated that the global value of project-based economic activity will increase from $12 trillion in 2017 to $20 trillion in 2027.

It is imperative for organisations to anticipate, adapt, and manage change. The ones that can strike the right balance between developing new capabilities (through projects) and extracting value from them (through operations) will win.

From roles to deliverables

This shifting work environment is creating changes in the traditional corporate ladder structure.

Amplified by the pandemic, workers are starting to value flexibility, new challenges, and the opportunity to create tangible outcomes at the expense of the traditional job titles and full-time status.

As workers are becoming more specialised, independent, mobile, and digitally connected, enterprises are increasingly pressed to cut down on wasteful spending, become more productive, nimble, and responsive to the dynamic marketplace.

Repetitive, operational tasks are increasingly being outsourced or automated using AI and RPA (Robotic Process Automation) tools, leaving room for projects to capture and deliver organisations’ most important work. Another example is from organisations adopting a DevOps culture. This often results in a DevOps team working on projects to create tools that allow developers to deploy and monitor their code faster and more reliably. Project teams working on projects to improve the speed and delivery of project work.

In terms of the skills makeup, project teams need subject matter expertise, technical knowledge, creativity, communication, empathy, and a commitment to the company’s mission.

But everyone is competing for the same talent. How can you stand out?

Engage emerging talent early on

To thrive in the future of work, leaders need to reimagine how they source and engage early talent.

Big players understand this very well and invest significant resources in early careers recruitment. But complacency can be a silent killer. Even the most sophisticated graduate recruiters need to proactively look for new and better ways to build relationships with students early on.

Engaging students early reduces the likelihood of bad hires and attrition. According to the Institute of Student Employers apprentices are less likely to quit after 5 years compared to graduates. A key reason is that apprentices start their relationship with employers at a younger age, which builds loyalty. For graduates, the experience is inherently more transactional, reducing loyalty and increasing attrition.

Here’s what almost everyone is doing

Internships – can vary between 2-6 months and they are a great way to help students earn a bit of income, gain experience of the workplace, boost their profile, and connect with people in your organisation. It also helps employers assess capability, predict performance, and judge cultural fit.

The main challenges are cost, scale, and quality. It is expensive to run a good internship programme at scale as it involves buy-in and commitment from a range of people in the organisation. Unfortunately, too often we hear about internships being reduced to coffee delivery and photocopying. This hurts both students’ career prospects and employers’ brands.

Work Experience – similarly to internships but shorter in scope (~ 1 week on average), work experience programmes give students a glimpse into companies’ working environments. Although students don’t usually get paid, they do benefit from a structured programme that helps them build important workplace skills like teamwork, communication, and problem-solving.

The devil is in the details here as well. A well-executed programme has the potential to leave a positive impression and build strong relationships with future employees but, if not planned or executed properly, it can have a damaging effect on students’ perception of the company.

Career Fairs – a staple of the older days of campus recruiting, career fairs have taken a hit from the pandemic. In the span of two years, career fairs went from being the main act on the campus recruitment scene, to a side gig that people go to for free merch. The in-person contact is a positive but the cost and inconvenience are starting to outweigh the benefit.

What few are doing

GenZ is mission-driven and digitally savvy. They are also the largest consumer group with the biggest buying power in history. Building meaningful relationships is critical for both revenue and recruitment.

An emerging practice is taking shape, where companies engage with students throughout their educational lifecycle using meaningful project opportunities and challenges.

Leveraging new technologies and paradigms in talent acquisition, employers are posting project opportunities and distributing these to students across universities, colleges, bootcamps, and even schools. Projects vary in terms of length, complexity, deliverables, and incentives but their main purpose is to streamline early careers attraction and assessment to identify the right candidates to hire.

Some types of projects that we’ve seen and helped create include:

Project-Based Job Simulations are short, open, self-paced projects (4-6h) designed to help students gain experience, awareness and insights into specific jobs, companies, and industries by working on tangible challenges. Since these are unpaid, they are not meant to be commercial and any IP created belongs to students.

Course Credit Projects are delivered at specific times of the academic and in partnership with professors and educators. They tend to be longer (10-40h) and the IP can usually be used commercially by employers. Project outputs are graded and students receive credits for successfully completing projects.

Paid Projects & Challenges vary in length but their purpose is both commercial and educational. Employers outsource tasks and projects (usually at a discount compared to freelancing platforms), which students perform to gain income and experience. These usually involve an application and vetting process to ensure a specific standard of candidates and quality of work.

Engaging students with project-based opportunities to learn & earn is becoming an increasingly effective way for employers to build relationships early, influence what students learn, predict job performance, and even get work done.

Thriving in the future of work means building a resilient, creative, and dynamic workforce that can be configured and re-configured according to project-based work. The war for talent makes it increasingly hard to find people with the right skills and mindsets. But there is no shortage of people. Wining the war means sidestepping it altogether and growing your own talent.

To see how you can create projects to better attract & assess students, have a look at our employers page or just book a demo with me.