Insights · May 13th, 2007

Our most recent question about the future is from Deb Palmer, of Washington State Dept of Natural Resources, who asks: “I’d be interested on your thoughts about the workforce—we’re starting to see shortages in some fields. The predictions are that the median age of the middle-class worker will continue to rise. What do we as employers need to do to be prepared for the dynamics of older workers? How can we prepare our employees for this? And anything you may see at relevant.”

Thanks, Deb, good question. We are, indeed, starting to see shortages. These are particularly obvious in the blue-collar workforce where industries reporting trouble attracting workers vary from utilities to transportation. While I haven’t done a scientific survey, it seems that the hardest jobs to fill right now are skilled labor, such as telephone linemen. These are long, hard jobs that take training and careful attention. They demand work in tough circumstances and during emergencies, when most people would actually rather be home with their families. Another short field is nursing – again, some education and training required (and a lot of it the high end of the field), hard work, many hours. Some of the work is rewarding, but some is unpleasant. And then for nursing and some of the other fields, add increasing demand for workers to the gap.

High tech firms, like Google and Microsoft, also report trouble getting the right workers. The Peace Corps is working hard to recruit the retired.

Demographics suggest that worker shortages will affect us all as the boomers retire.

Older workers is one result. In other words some boomers won’t retire, and many businesses may be competing for them. In order to keep knowledgeable workers, or attract them into new fields, we need to:

• Treat them with respect
• Help all generations in the workforce better understand how to talk to each other
• Remove the often real financial barriers to staying on – the math behind many retirement programs almost forces people out by a certain age
• Put senior wellness programs into place
• Add benefits that will appeal to older workers, such as more time off (and maybe even simply unpaid time off if they want it – they may already have a retirement income and prefer to work less hours).

I’ve added links to a few articles below that were particularly helpful on these topics.

Encouraging older workers is part of the solution. But across the long run, population in most first world countries is already falling, and ours is about even except for immigration, and anticipated to be below replacement well before world population peaks in 2050.

First, I’d work hard on productivity and innovation. Not working harder, but smarter. Is there routine and repetitive work that you can automate? If you are in the public sector, can specialized resources be shared? Is there work getting done that doesn’t really need to be done? Should you spend more on IT?

Second, we need to develop an immigration policy structure that supports legal immigration, increases quotas (particularly for desirable skills like doctors, engineers, and other professions, but also for skilled and unskilled labor), and helps people who immigrate here legally so they pay taxes and contribute to society. This one is hard to see since the current media hype about immigration is directed at the too-big flood of illegal immigration. But I’m sure that within ten or twenty years, there will be intense worldwide competition for human capital. Unless, of course, we develop artificial intelligences or robots that really want to do blue collar work. I’m not holding my breath.


Saying goodbye to the boomers: Worker Shortage Looms as Tens of Millions Prepare to Retire, by Teresa M. McAleavy, San Jose Mercury News
Summary: a good article about one particular employer who is concerned about and preparing for his company’s aging workforce

Four Generations – One Workplace — Can We All Work Together? by: Melissa Proffitt Reese and Tiffany A. Sharpley
Summary: good article about intergenerational employees and workplace dynamics, including a section on “5 Tips Employers Can Implement to Narrow the Generational Communication Gap”

Note that just for asking, Deb will recieve a free copy of my book, The Silver Ship and the Sea. If you’d like your own copy, or a copy of Glen’s Turning the Future into Revenue, ask us a question. We’ll give away books for one or two of the questions each month, for the next few months.

Business & Economy
Nikolas Badminton – Chief Futurist

Nikolas Badminton

Nikolas is the Chief Futurist of the Futurist Think Tank. He is world-renowned futurist speaker, a Fellow of The RSA, and has worked with over 300 of the world’s most impactful companies to establish strategic foresight capabilities, identify trends shaping our world, help anticipate unforeseen risks, and design equitable futures for all. In his new book – ‘Facing Our Futures’ – he challenges short-term thinking and provides executives and organizations with the foundations for futures design and the tools to ignite curiosity, create a framework for futures exploration, and shift their mindset from what is to WHAT IF…

Contact Nikolas