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Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda-Part II

Several months ago in this space I raised questions about the lamentations of those who could not find work or were unable to make ends meet. That commentary was not to negate those in need, but to question their chosen path. While there continues to be concern for those unfortunate souls who have inadvertently tipped into a bad place, there remain many who have actively made the bed they are now occupying.

Much has happened since that commentary. 2014 was, for all practical purposes, a pretty good year for employment opportunities, with millions of new jobs and a serious uptick in virtually every sector. Even though unemployment is now down to around 5.7% (males) and 5.3% (females), there remain almost daily articles about the loss of decently paying jobs and the corresponding erosion of the middle class. In the midst of this discussion are the baby boomers, many of whom are remaining on the job due to low savings and declining retirement options. Experienced, tenured boomers, of course, tend to trump less experienced Millennials and Gen Xers, further reducing their employment opportunities, especially in higher level positions that have a future.

Even with a growing number of the 76 million boomers now able to retire, there is growing fear that this will have a profoundly negative impact on most industries and public agencies due to the loss of networks, working relationships, broad technical knowledge and proven skills on which organizations depend for effective production and seamless service. In any operation, remove the seasoned personnel or even a fraction thereof, and efficiency, quality and productivity immediately falls. That said, because 25% of all working people are 55 or older, an enormous number will be moving into retirement or assuming lesser roles in current positions. Even though some will elect to not retire, others will seek fewer hours and softer assignments- IF they stay. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that less than 40% of boomers will remain active in the labor force after age 55.

The loss of institutional memory is now being seen as a major potential blow to both private and public sector organizations. In fact, many see this outmigration as one of the most serious impediments to growth, competitiveness, and sustainability. Why is this critical? Simply because it is impossible to replace 40% of all the relationships, networks and institutional knowledge, even if you can replace some of the technical skills with younger talent. Some things can be replaced in a short time; other things cannot. In sum, the next five years could see a pronounced dip in productivity and efficiency at a time when many expect considerable growth.

Exacerbating this dilemma is the parallel issue of emerging new jobs without an adequate labor force to fill them. By 2017, there will be approximately 2.5 million new, middle-skill jobs added to the workplace, amounting to around 40% of all job growth (Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. and CareerBuilder, fall 2014). Virtually all of these jobs require some level of technical training but few will require a college degree. The kicker is that all will pay over $13 per hour and many closer to the $20-$25 range, placing workers squarely in the middle class wage range that has been considered ancient history without college. The message? Well-paying blue collar jobs have not disappeared and have not all been replaced by low-wage service jobs. They have merely shifted and require new skills that must be purposefully acquired. High and mid-range skilled jobs will comprise 64% of new jobs in coming years, offering a clear counterpoint to those who wring their hands about the decline of decently paying jobs for workers entering the workforce. The jobs are going to be there. The question is, will the workers have the skills? And if not, why not?

Because Boomers now make up around 20% of the total workforce, there is room for newly minted talent who will grow the middle class IF they have the skills. For years, concerns have been raised about the growing scarcity of technical skills, whether it be electricians, plumbers, lathe and mill operators, millwrights, welders, pipefitters, carpenters, metal fabricators, mechanics, etc. More critical is the absence of younger workers who enjoy working with their hands in team environments that still comprise the bulk of American manufacturing.

Job training, mentoring, lengthy onboarding, and collaboration with high schools and junior colleges is becoming a common factor of modern business and public agencies. Much of this has been detailed by Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School (U. of Pennsylvania) in his book, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs (Wharton Digital Press 2012). The growing avalanche of re-shoring and manufacturing growth and general business expansion, coupled with huge numbers of technical public sector positions is creating extraordinary opportunities for those willing to work. The real question is that, as these positions become available, will the current crop of prospective candidates have the preparation, commitment, work ethic and basic technical skills to successfully compete for them? More to the point, when early- and mid-career people have been warned about job skill requirements yet have done nothing to acquire them, who is to blame when productivity lags and the best jobs remain vacant because the skills just aren’t there?

Throughout history market and economic growth cycles have produced new, better and more jobs. For those who have been told since the early 1990s about this growing trend and have done nothing to prepare, the woulda, shoulda, coulda response doesn’t play well. This is especially sensitive when we factor in mass outmigration of baby boomers, rapid re-shoring, emerging public infrastructure work, increased consumerism and a growing manufacturing sector; we need those jobs and the people to fill them. My concern is the gap between what is needed and what is available and how long it will take to catch up. If it takes too long, the recent upturn will soon devolve into another downturn-one that is predictable, avoidable, foolish and shameful.

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie.jpgWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out four times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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One Response

  1. Getting a college education is no longer a guarantee for gainful employment. Skills are required that a formal education may not always provide. Rethinking approaches to work and higher education need to be considered for those approaching high school graduation and seeking viable career options. Great article that should be in the hands of parents and High School counselors.

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