Silencing the Alarmists

By John Hollon

Aug. 27, 2007

Do we have a looming labor shortage, or not?

    A few weeks ago, I wrote an item for my Business of Management blog  on what I called “The Talent-Shortage Myth.” My premise was this: The gloom-and-doom talk about a huge talent shortage based on the looming retirement of 76 million baby boomers is premature and overstated. I pointed to an AARP survey that found that 69 percent of workers between the ages of 45 and 75 plan to work during their retirement, as well as other anecdotal evidence, to make my case.

    Many executives and HR professionals responded with comments that add some additional insight and perspective to the point I was trying to make. Here are a few of the things they had to say:

    It’s about quality, not quantity. “The issue … is the quality of the workers we have, especially the competitiveness of our leaders,” wrote Marc Effron, vice president of talent management for Avon Products. “It seems that companies in developing countries are much more serious about building great leaders than we are. They are aggressively investing in good, basic leadership development—developmental assignments, projects, self-awareness—and they’re doing this with more commitment and a greater investment of time than many Western companies. So, whether there will be a physical shortage of talent may be a moot point if the talent we will have can’t compete.”

    The public sector is where the problem is. “While I agree that boomers in some areas may keep working as long as their health permits, in others they will not,” says Lisa Rowan, program manager for HR and talent management services at IDC. “Notable among the areas that will be hardest hit is the public sector. With traditional defined-benefit pensions and early-retirement incentives, teachers, for example, are opting out in record numbers. And, it doesn’t end in education, as it carries through the entire government sector as well.”

    Training and technology will be key factors. “Technology waits for no one. Sure, baby boomers may stick around longer, but will they adapt to the skills needed for tomorrow’s skilled workforce?” wrote Steve Bradley, founder and president of SystemLink. “Will companies step up to the challenge of training their workforce for the skills they need? Most companies already do a poor job of this and have not planned for it.”

    Boomers will stay for new opportunities. “As a recruiter, I interview these boomers all day long. Almost all of them are working, but are looking for new opportunities,” says Elizabeth Lyons at Onsite Financial. “The conversation is the same … [boomers) want to feel valued, they want to be heard and feel like at the end of the day, what they did had some point to it. That is the only reason why they are looking at opportunities. Work has long lost its luster for them.”

    These various insights offer different perspectives, but all come at the issue of a looming “talent shortage” from the same place—that it is not necessarily the aging of the workforce that is the issue, but one of many other factors that go hand in hand with it.

    Although I agree with all of the points that these workforce experts are making, it still doesn’t shake me from my original premise: The forecasted labor shortage is at best a demographic ripple, and not the giant tidal wave people claim is out there.

    And here’s one final comment from someone who agrees with me, an HR consultant who signed his note “T.J.” in Lancaster, Pennsylvania: “The stats on savings patterns and the disappearance of the lifetime pension suggest that retirement at 65 is truly an illusion for many of us boomers. We’ll be working later because we won’t have a choice. The workforce will not only benefit from our staying active longer, it will also be bolstered by the incoming 80 million members of the millennial—Gen Y—group that is larger than the boomer generation. Unfortunately, none of this is as headline-grabbing as the doom-and-gloom messages. Keep up the good work of challenging ‘common knowledge.’ ”

Workforce Management, August 20, 2007, p. 58Subscribe Now!

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