Achieving Balance: Managing Projects Amid Staffing Shortages

In this era of staffing shortages, airport operators must be smart and right-size their outsourced program management teams to minimize inefficiencies as they work to meet capital improvement goals.

Airports are vital to the growth and financial health of communities. They shape neighborhoods, provide employment, improve social and financial mobility, and connect us to the rest of the world. Through thoughtful capital planning, they are also economic generators that provide long-term stability within communities.

There is an abundance of improvement projects being implemented at airports across the country. As part of the $5 billion in grant money available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the U.S. Transportation Department awarded $968.6 million for 85 airport infrastructure programs in 2022.

Capital improvement programs (CIP) are the long-term planning framework airports are using to plan, develop, maintain and execute this work. The objective of a CIP is to identify and prioritize needed improvements to an airport’s facilities that enhance functionality and the traveling public’s experience. CIPs establish a budget and a rough timeline for execution, but most don’t provide estimates of the staffing time required to deliver a project.

Aviation consultants who offer program management (PM) services are familiar with the issues associated with delivering complex improvement projects. These issues are exacerbated for airport operators dealing with staffing challenges. Before the pandemic and certainly since, airports have struggled to find skilled employees to manage projects. Factors contributing to staffing shortages include losing employees to outside, higher-paying jobs and retiring older workers. This loss has created a knowledge void in the industry, which is causing many airports to rely heavily on less experienced employees who need assistance managing projects.

Small But Mighty PM Teams

Gaining in popularity is a small and nimble program management option. PM Lite utilizes self-directed, solid professional PM teams — embedded on-site — to deliver high-impact project management where and when needed. Like any owner’s representative, a high-quality PM Lite team can assist with project planning, design and construction services at all stages, whenever a large team is not necessary.

PM Lite is an ideal tool to use for balancing work and staffing challenges. The shortage of experienced employees has contributed to a backlog of projects, significantly reducing the number of projects airports undertake and increasing the time they require. This unfortunate fact has had an even greater impact in recent years because there is an influx of funding available to develop, produce and complete even more projects. For these reasons, utilizing a PM Lite approach that relies on consultants to act as hands-on doers can really help get work “out the door.”

Aviation consultants acting in PM Lite roles help bridge staffing gaps and meet airport goals by providing highly regarded knowledge and experience on a short- or long-term basis. In order for the PM Lite model to work, program managers should not only understand an airport’s long-term plans and CIPs but should also understand the obstacles that need to be overcome and the processes needed for success.

When considering the percentage growth of scheduled seats over the past year, the increase in passenger traffic is mostly occurring at medium-sized airports in places like Fort Lauderdale, Kansas City, New Orleans and San Juan. The historic approach for an airport to meet the demand for additional staffing support has been to turn to on-call consultants or hire a large PM team. However, now that more and more mid-sized airports are requiring assistance managing projects, using a PM Lite strategy allows airport owners to get the most out of operational staff by bringing in self-directed professionals to help manage work.

Maximize the Value of a PM Lite Approach

PM Lite teams require no supervision while delivering projects on schedule and within budget. Benefits of these teams include:

  • Minimizing administrative spend to maximize construction dollars available.
  • Right-sizing and adjusting staffing and resources so airport operators have peace of mind about projects getting completed.
  • Strengthening relationships among departments, public agencies, communities and passengers.
  • Delivering projects that better accommodate airport goals due to high familiarity with a facility.
  • Expediting knowledge sharing and decision-making, as well as reducing inefficiencies and costs.

A PM Lite team should have professionals with experience in design, construction and project execution, safety and health, project controls, quality management, contract negotiations, stakeholder management, environmental due diligence, and compliance and permitting. Additionally, an experienced team should be well-equipped to manage schedules, budgets, materials, community relations, and government and public interactions.

When deciding if a PM Lite approach is right for your airport, consider:

  • What are the ultimate objectives and the intermediate milestones of the CIPs?
  • What are the obstacles that may keep a project from being delivered successfully?
  • What are the hardline, “unspoken rules” that have no flexibility and must be worked around?
  • What are the processes needed to move projects forward?
  • What knowledge or staffing gaps need to be managed?

Staffing shortages are forcing airports to rethink how to right-size their PM teams when considering CIP goals. With a variety of innovative ways for delivering projects in their toolbox, aviation professionals at Burns & McDonnell are staying a step ahead when it comes to supporting airport facilities with a PM Lite approach to getting jobs done.

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Aviation Special Report


Willie Wilcoxen

Business Development Manager