Looming Labor Shortage Equals Opportunity for Baby Boomers

Describes coming labor shortage of skilled workers in the U.S.

According to many sources, there is a coming labor shortage that will occur as Baby Boomers retire and there are not as many new workers coming into the labor market.

One group of statistics states that 70 million Baby Boomers will retire or at least reach retirement age in the next 15 years. These statistics also reveal that only 40 million new workers will come in to the labor market.

While this is indeed a large gap, there is an additional factor that promises to make this gap even wider. This gap is in the area of skills. The majority of these 70 million Baby Boomers are native-born, language proficient, skilled workers. These Baby Boomers possess many learning and adapting skills developed through the educational process and life experience. The 40 million coming behind them are often lacking in basic learning skills which handicaps them for more complex job functions.

According to Neil Lebovits, president of Ajilon, a specialty-staffing firm, "There are more than 90 million Americans whose literacy and numeric skills are at the 10th-grade level or below. If you consider education and training, the coming talent shortage and 'talent wars' will be even more serious."

Businesses in the services area, who require knowledgeable workers with specialized skill sets in various industries, definitely foresee a problem with the labor supply. Over the past few years, these businesses have noticed a lower level of ability in basic skills. Robert Grossman, author of “The Truth About the Coming Labor Shortage” printed in HR MAGAZINE, says that in basic English more than 60% of employers rate high-school graduates’ skills as fair or poor. He goes on to say it is undeniable that change in the workforce and its capability are right around the corner. The effect on specific industries remains to be seen.

Some companies and industries have already set up strategies to attract, develop and retain quality, skilled employees. Many are using more than one strategy to do this. These strategies include:

1. Formalized coaching and mentoring to capitalize on the experience or older workers and to achieve knowledge transfer from older workers to younger workers.

2. Creating their own in-house university to provide retraining, upgrading, and continuing education.

3. Creating a school within their business model to train workers themselves, even those who do not work for them. They are growing their own talent rather than relying on outside sources.

4. Investing in training, development and continuing education; specifically developing learning skills such as non-routine cognitive skills, abstract reasoning, problem-solving, communication and collaboration.

5. Investing in older workers. The number of people aged 55 to 64 is expected to grow by 51%, four times the average for all age groups. Workers aged 65 and older is a segment also expected to grow by over 50%. These people have significant skills, experience, and mature reasoning abilities that need to be utilized and transferred to younger workers.  Many companies are offering shorter work weeks or hours to older employees in order to keep them on the job training younger workers.

This is good news for some Baby Boomers, who may experience income troubles with reduced Social Security and Medicare benefits available. The need for their skills could allow them to work many years longer than has been the norm for previous generations of workers.

With a drop in the U. S. skilled labor pool, many more jobs could be transferred overseas. In the past, most of these transferred jobs have been in the manufacturing and processing industries. But without good basic business skills such as reading, spelling, grammar, simple mathematics, typing, telephone etiquette, and conversational abilities in our labor pool, service jobs are beginning to disappear as well.

For the past 15 to 20 years, a large number of students entering community colleges spend their first year and much of the second year taking remedial English and Math courses. This is costly for the students, their families, and the government which provides federal and state grant money to many students attending post-secondary schools. 

Are there steps we as individual Baby Boomers can take to help in this situation? Here is a possible action list.

1) Offer low-cost or free tutoring for students. While you may feel your own skills are lacking, you will still be able to help these students. Nothing improves our own skills like teaching them to someone else.

2) Check with your local library or church to see if there are volunteer opportunities to help school-age students with their homework.

3) Volunteer in your local schools to be an after-school tutor.

4) Don’t be afraid to tutor middle school and high school age students. This is the time they need help the most. Their own parents may be working two or more jobs and have very little time to help them but empty-nest and retired Baby Boomers do have the time.

It may very well be true that the Baby Boomers had an educational advantage over students of today. Even though there were more students in every classroom 40 years ago, most of the time teachers were stricter and expected more from students. Students were expected to sit and listen to their teachers, do the work assigned, and there were harsh consequences of not doing these things. Teachers did not rely so much on videos to do their teaching for them.

Additionally, many Baby Boomers had a good, strong work ethic model presented by parents and family for them to follow. Baby Boomers were told that to get ahead in life they would have to work hard and do their work in an efficient manner. They were taught not to expect any shortcuts to success. They were encouraged to get a good education by working hard in school and to continue working hard for a good education if they went on to college. By and large, more Baby Boomers started college then following generations, even if they didn’t graduate. There were no remedial English or math courses when they began college. Those who lacked the skills or refused to do the work flunked out. The consequences of a poor education or poor skills began to show up early in their lives. Perhaps the same values are being taught by families and schools today but why do we continue to see a lower level of capability?

There may well be a shortage of skilled workers in the next few years but the severity can and must be lowered. Baby Boomers must play a big role in making sure this shortage is less severe and temporary.

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Lorena Williams
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