Forecasting Talent Challenges

By Jeremy Smerd

Dec. 20, 2007

The Conference Board recently named Gail Fosler its 12th president. Fosler has been with the Conference Board for 18 years and is noted for being one of the nation’s most accurate economic forecasters through her development of the Conference Board’s leading economic indicators. Fosler, who will report to CEO Jonathan Spector, this year helped found the Conference Board’s research center in Beijing. Fosler spoke with Workforce Management staff writer Jeremy Smerd.

Workforce Management: How do you see the role of the Conference Board in American business?

Gail Fosler: The perspective we have is like standing on the doorstep of your neighbor across the street and looking back at your house. You always walk out of your own house. Sometimes you look back at it, but you never step out of the circle and look at it in an objective way.

WM: It’s an interesting metaphor. Can you give an example of what you mean?

Fosler: Take the “workforce for the future” issue. We’ve done quite a bit of work in this area. [Employers have] been accustomed to the U.S. labor force as being a very rich pool. They can dip their ladle in as they wish and out come exactly the sets of people they want and need. This seems like a no-brainer, but people have [simply been] filling positions rather than charting over a five-year or longer period what people they are going to need, where are they going to need them and what kinds of skills they are going need.

WM: And what kinds of skills are employers going to need?

Fosler: The skills are not so defined in traditional terms like a Ph.D. or a master’s in journalism. They are defined increasingly in terms of your communications and leadership ability, ability to work in teams and sometimes in terms of geographic specialty. They have to think of this in the same sense they think about whether their energy supplies are going to be secure.

WM: A lot of your work has been in economic forecasting. What workforce management issues do you see taking center stage in the next year?

Fosler: As I look forward I see the overall unemployment rate remaining at 4.5 percent; that’s basically full employment. As we go forward this is going to be almost a permanent feature of the workplace. Companies are going to be struggling to get top talent and they are going to be confronted with a lot of training and education issues that will arise from the nature of the skills and experience of the people who come into the workplace.

WM: Who are these workers that need training?

Fosler: I’m really thinking of three categories: the kids coming out of the top schools and those at the top of organizations; then you have reallocation issues-people moving out of manufacturing into health care and other services. Then you have the final issue of people coming into the workplace. There are two issues here. Folks coming into the workplace with a college education don’t have the necessary skills. A lot of the college kids are not prepared for either the technical jobs that are required or the higher-end communication jobs that are required. In addition, you have in some populations, like the Hispanic population-you’ve got very low college participation and very high high-school.

Jeremy Smerd writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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