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Boomer Talent

Much has been made of the fact that 2015 was the peak year for the number of Baby Boomers reaching age 65. While not remarkable by itself, it reflects the enormous number of older Americans who are at or near retirement age. But to infer that Boomers are destined to call it quits at the traditional retirement age of 65 signals a serious misunderstanding of our generation.

A recent edition of Pacific Standard (September/October 2015) contained an interesting article entitled, The Aging Advantage. This article, by Bonnie Tsui, focused on the career of Barbara Beskind, a 91year old designer at the San Francisco design firm IDEO. The story was not so much about her remarkable career, brilliance or mental acuity as it was about the value of her experience, knowledge and ability to contribute.

From experience and research, it is clear that older workers have great value. It is also clear that there is an interesting social phenomenon in the U.S. that diminishes the perceived value of those past a certain age. In most other developed societies (and many that are less developed), older citizens are highly valued but in America, they are often seen as a burden or irrelevant. Research over several decades reveals a significantly different message.

Throughout most industrialized nations the number of older citizens is increasing. While unremarkable in itself, this cohort is growing percentage-wise while there is a corresponding reduction in the number of younger, employable citizens. In China, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Italy, England, and many other countries, including the U.S., there is growing concern that there will be an insufficient number of new, talented workers to replace those moving toward retirement. More importantly, the loss of institutional memory, technical skill and deep knowledge is accelerating at an astounding rate. Within this context, most organizations give little thought to the rich networks of contacts built by older workers over four or five decades. Once retired, these workers take these amazingly complex and valuable networks with them and they are lost to the organization forever.

Clearly, those between the ages of 55 and 80 collectively possess a treasure of information, skill, awareness, perspective, knowledge and contacts. They have enormous skill and a proven ability to accomplish complex assignments. Consider the amount of on-the-job training, professional development, education and experience that is accumulated over 40 to 50 years of work. Does that just disappear when one reaches ‘retirement age?’ Hardly. What seems to be missing is the recognition that the sum total of all the training and development, education and experience is a potent and valuable capital asset. Unfortunately, this asset is wasted by the vast majority of public and private organizations.

According to Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity, recent studies at the Center show that older workers are more emotionally stable, have fewer conflicts, are more prone to collaborate, are better mentors, and deal with intense challenges with more patience and equanimity. They are helpful, productive and less prone to workplace politics. In many ways, older workers have already built their careers, so are more willing to help younger workers build their own careers. The challenge is getting younger workers and management teams to recognize the value of this latent and underutilized asset.

Most Boomers enjoy working with younger workers. While there are troublesome idiosyncrasies, such as their constant toying with cell phones, Facebook and Internet searches, the energy, spirit and inquisitive nature of young people is a powerful force. Mixing older and younger workers can produce highly innovative results while building collaborative cultures that promote mentoring and a natural transference of knowledge and skill. More critically, older workers become comfortable with sharing their long-established networks and introducing early and mid-career employees to acquaintances throughout their communities and industries. What is generally misunderstood is that these introductions provide professional credibility that would have not been possible without first being legitimized by the senior worker.

Older Americans are already here. They are in the workplace and are active in the community. They know how to get things done, have great contacts and have little use for workplace politics. While there are exceptions, there is overwhelming evidence that older workers are able to learn as well as their younger counterparts, are great problem solvers, and tend to know what to do when tasked with an assignment. Above all, they are experienced. There is very little they have not seen, learned how to do or had to overcome.

The message here is that America’s older workers are an untapped resource that is being overlooked and often cast aside at a time when every organization needs thoughtful and capable can-do talent. No private or public organization can afford to lose its contact networks, support systems, or deep institutional knowledge and unique skills. But, it is essential to understand that these networks and skillsets reside with people, not organizations. Give some thought to new ways to fully use and integrate older workers into the evolving fabric of your organization. If productivity, insight, harmony and preservation of institutional memory is valued, seeking seasoned talent and effectively using existing older workers will be a wise investment.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith 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 multiple times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare private and public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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Count Our Blessings

The blessing theme was marred late in 2015 by the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the ensuing aftermath of revulsion, blame and resistance to accepting immigrants in dire need of support, food and shelter. One of the most unsettling things about the growing antipathy toward migrating people is the massive number of young children who have nowhere else to go. It is difficult to hold them accountable for atrocities they can barely comprehend, even if witnessed firsthand. There is no easy answer and no glib response will suffice. It just seems to be another testament to a global cauldron fueled by sectarian animosity, religious entitlement, historic grudges and a clash between civilized, future-looking populations and those with little to embrace. Even vestiges of their cultural heritage are being erased by forces immune to reason, trust and good will. This too will pass, but at what price and over what period of time? Difficult to say at this point, but the plot always turns, even if too slowly for so many who need immediate assistance. Sending dispossessed people home is a non-solution because so many don’t have homes. They are truly walking in the wilderness…pretty strange for the modern age and the New Year 2016.

While the Paris and San Bernardino attacks cast a dark shadow over the holiday season and did not provide the classic run-up to Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years, the solidarity reflected in global responses must be taken as a positive indication of at least the prospect of more collaboration among nations against a common foe. Whether a grand scheme is created or fractious interventions continue, a more robust response is certain. Let’s just hope it begins to turn the tide and doesn’t create more uncertainty, retribution and blame.

Even factoring recent events into the yearend equation, I don’t see a gloomy year ahead. As this country has experienced for some time, there will continue to be bumps and bruises, convolutions and diversions, and a measure of economic fluctuation, as we’re witnessing during a current market dive. But overall, the interactive world will remain mobile, engaged, cooperative, and committed to progress. Those of us fortunate to be American citizens will continue to enjoy economic growth, emerging opportunities, ample goods and services, and many, many options. GDP growth should be above 2.5%- some predict around 2.8%; inflation will grow to above 2%, perhaps as much as 2.3%, which is well above the current 1.2% for 2015. Unemployment will continue to decline from the current 5% to a range of 4.4% to 4.6%, signaling steady economic growth, that is, if not spectacular, still reasonable. Commodity prices are languishing and will continue into 2016 but this also reduces manufacturing costs and keeps inflation low.

Crude oil prices are a major driver of economic progress, and crude prices are predicted to remain between $45 and $50 per barrel as we move through 2016. With massive supplies, we are now at a 12-year low at $33.88 a barrel but there is good reason to believe that crude prices will remain in the range of $40 to $50 for the next twelve to fifteen months, providing a solid base for consumer spending (3.2% annual rate), more investment (housing 6.1% annual growth rate), and lower operating costs across all industries. The Fed raised interest rates a bit in December and if things go reasonably well, will surely raise rates again in 2016 but it won’t create many problems. A greater concern is the movement toward a higher minimum wage, which will impact small business and boost inflation. Over time, it may also be good for the general economy. Overall, our economy is more stable than any other country and the U.S. continues to serve as the bedrock for global investment and economic development. This should continue through 2016 and well into 2017, unless there are major worldwide upheavals. With so much riding on stability, this is unlikely, no matter how many skirmishes, ambushes and attacks occur. Interventions will move to an entirely new level to preserve some semblance of world order.

That said, incursions and test case scenarios are escalating. In addition to the Middle East circus, China and Russia in particular will slowly test the will of other sovereign nations, especially the United States. Whether building made-made islands in the South China Sea or disputing territorial rights with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, China will rattle its saber to test the resolve of the U.S. and her allies. However, China’s internal economy is sinking (thus the current market doldrums) and will continue to decline and domestic issues will divert its attention inward, as the enormous Chinese population seeks more freedoms, a greater voice, jobs, property ownership and less government meddling. There are too many problems there for China to spend much time or money gaming the United States. Russia will continue to make plays in the Artic and meddle in Eastern Europe and Syria, but it may also be forced into joining a more sustained, coordinated effort against ISIS. South America remains a quagmire of debt and only Brazil is digging out after years of recession. While still marginal, it is a regional leader and may see actual growth in 2016. With some luck and reasonable weather, its drought will ease and decent harvests will boost GDP.

Turning attention homeward, I see opportunity for growth and development. As noted in other articles I authored last month, it is time for new thinking, exploration and evolution to a progressive way of managing our affairs. Whether business, government or our personal lives, the convergence of technology, trends, culture, and information will bring new opportunities to those adventurous enough to seek them. Baby Boomers are working longer, Millennials are competing like crazy; new enterprises are being created and new horizons are constantly being defined. In this context, however, there also remains enormous problems with social inequality and fiscal inequity; there are more people below the poverty line than ever before in American history; educational performance remains low; far too many people have inadequate retirement savings; and, of course, Washington politicos are about to launch another totally inane election cycle. But who would want to trade all this? It is, after all, our country, our struggle, our future.

There is much to do and we have the resources to undertake any challenge. The question is, do we have the resolve, capacity, and deep commitment to think, plan, adapt and move into a New Year that has promise mixed with equal measures of sadness, anger, frustration, and anticipation? Are we ready to move forward regardless of known and unknown challenges? And, are we able to set aside latent anxieties and embrace the inherent beauty and wonder of this nation? I believe the answer is yes.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies and private organizations.  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 three 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).

An Evolving Future

The past six weeks have brought confusion, distrust, fear and downright panic to many segments of the global community. This can be generally attributed to wildly fluctuating (mostly downward) markets, China’s steady decline, a collapsing oil market, continued shenanigans in the Middle East and a host of other factors. It seems mildly interesting that China’s decline, or at least its malaise, was predicted over two years ago and is another example of ‘predictable surprise,’ a term that has been presented in this space in previous articles. So too has the general phenomenon of fluctuation, meaning, simply, that what goes up tends to come down at some point. Of course, when there is precipitous decline, there is a parallel ‘pucker’ that is typically felt across generations and social strata.

As we begin looking seriously at the 4th Quarter, it may be wise to consider even longer-term preparation for 2016. From all accounts, the economy is doing fairly well, we are only vaguely playing at war, Iran seems to be placated, the European Union is holding together and most saber rattling has the feel of bluster rather than foreboding. That is not to say we should be cavalier about the next few months or forego planning for the coming year. Rather, it is merely a reflection of the global environment where we continue to battle, strip, plunder, compete, ignore and diminish while we also earn, develop, innovate, cherish, preserve, care, protect, dream and evolve. So many unanswered question pertain to balance. In time, we’ll find out which list of adjectives will ultimately result in either a horrific end-game or enlightened evolution toward a remarkable New Age.

There is both wonder and a form of ennui when one considers NASA plans for sending astronauts to Mars within a decade or so. While those of us who were around to see the first Moon landing can recall the unbridled thrill, many more will have that detached, ethereal amazement when someone finally walks on Mars. Many of this planet’s best minds are collaborating on the Mars expedition, while their countries simultaneously joust over economic sanctions, alliances, mineral resources, fishing rights and shipping lanes. Dichotomies are growing as populations soar, fires burn, drought increases and crop yields decline. On one hand we cooperate to reach for the stars; on the other we argue over meaningless ideology while people die from starvation, deprivation and annihilation. There are earthly civilizations that have devolved into barbarity, enslaving entire communities, butchering innocent citizens, selling young girls, and destroying historic monuments that were beautiful tributes to truly great civilizations. There are others that try to make peace, share, innovate, reflect and constantly build. More than any time in human history contradictions abound.

In a connected world ignorance is not bliss; there are few who do not know what is occurring around the planet and this knowledge breeds discomfort, disunity and detachment. A fundamental reality of these troubling days is that most feel helpless to intervene. Things have grown so big, complex, fearsome, costly and convoluted that we don’t know where to begin. We are asked to contribute to NGOs and voluntary agencies pleading for funds to help the less fortunate. But where do we give and how do we reach others in a manner that contributes real value? How do we create hope, prevent disease, provide shelter, pump water, and grow crops? How do we intervene in clan warfare and prevent genocide? Most are only able to share meager resources, send a few dollars, support the troops and offer a prayer.

There are around 320 million people in the United States and around 50 million live at or below the poverty line. Half of school-age children qualify for free and reduced school lunch; immunization rates have fallen, preventable childhood disease is rising, drug use among teens is escalating, graduation rates are higher than ever but still low and U.S. science literacy scores place America 28th in global rankings. These are only a few critical markers that might indicate to even the most unassuming citizen that we have work to do at home. Not saying we should become isolationists, but merely providing encouragement for more attention to detail within our own borders.

Stepping outside political ruminations and ideology, the country has paid down some debt, brought service men and women home, expanded health care to many more individuals and families (whether some like it or not), reduced unemployment to around 5.1% and generated significantly more economic vitality. Consumer confidence remains high, corporate profits are up (so far), and the cost of war has been significantly reduced. So, are we rounding the corner on recessionary times, or has there merely been a pause in the country’s long-term decline? Time will also answer that question, but, by all indices and standards, the U.S. remains strong, capable, innovative and prosperous.

I would like to see more attention paid to those activities that made America strong – education, business development, new infrastructure, sensible immigration, and meaningful regulation that protects the public while not curtailing business growth. There is much to do and we have time to do it. But this decade was predicted to be and has been transformative. America is in the midst of a transition that is rapid, complex, difficult, and for all the marbles. If we don’t get it right, we stand to lose big. This means, as always, careful planning, strategic thinking, resource conservation, and a dual effort to preserve ideals while aggressively creating a new future. It can be done, but it will take leadership, statesmanship, and a willingness to sacrifice for the good of future generations. That is not to say we must curtail the present. It merely means that we must demonstrate a deep commitment to doing what is required to have any kind of future at all. Our parents did that for us. It’s time we did the same for our children and grandchildren.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow Tie

With 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 three 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).

The Allure of Water

Despite the twisted and inaccurate fulminations of climate deniers, we are experiencing a serious decline of water resources in the western U.S. that will have enormous economic repercussions. It is not so much that some refuse to recognize drought when they see it, or that they can’t seem to grasp the origin of well-proven causative factors that frustrates and confounds. The greater concern is that the volume and passion of their denial will inhibit real progress toward solutions. Those of us who deal with strategic planning understand that declining water resources is a legacy issue. Whatever decisions we make or don’t make now will haunt many future generations. By wasting time pontificating about causation or responsibility we merely create a more substantial foundation for a serious and prolonged disaster…one that could last for decades or even centuries. Recognition is one thing, action is another. But both would be better supported and energized by common vision, shared resources, and collective will. One of the feature stories in the March 18 edition of USA Today dealt with drought in the western US. In it, data clearly indicated that state reservoirs in California have only enough water for approximately one year. Since that article, Governor Brown has declared an even higher level of emergency with mandatory water rationing. Prior to that, Bettina Boxall reported in the Los Angeles Times that parts of the San Joaquin Valley are ‘deflating like a tire with a slow leak’ due to wells going dry and the earth settling into vacated space. Overpumping has been a natural response by farmers who are desperately trying to grow crops and avoid economic disaster. Many of the less fortunate have already been bankrupted by water related crop failure. Claudia Faunt, of the U.S. Geological Survey noted to Boxall that aquifers are “like a bank account. If the money you put in is less than what you’re taking out, it’s a deficit. How long can you withstand that?’ Not only in California are surface and underground reservoirs declining or going dry. The same is true in the Midwest, Southwest and parts of the Northwest. Boxall’s comments were based on the research of USGS hydrologist Michelle Sneed, who studies earth subsidence, or its sinking into space vacated in underground aquifers. Over half of the entire central valley of California has dropped by more than a foot. Even if aquifers rebounded, this shrinkage has permanently reduced their capacity, adding even more concern for the future. If you haven’t seen the astounding pictures of Lake Oroville, in Oroville, California, or Folsom and Shasta Lakes, take a look. What were once large and picturesque lakes now look like small ponds or sand pits with rivers running through them. Just looking at the NOAA map depicting the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook, released on March 19, is enough to give you the willies. Talk about another fire season! California’s Central Valley extends for around 400 miles beneath the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, holding water that entered the ground ten to twenty thousand years ago. With little snowpack, which is at a 25-year low, to provide spring runoff and much less annual rain, this and other aquifers will rapidly go dry or recede so low that it will be impossible to reach the remaining water. In the best cases, water may be reachable, but doing so will be costly, and those costs will be passed on to farmers and, ultimately, the consumer. As with all human challenges, the biological ‘pleasure/pain’ principal is prominent in the ongoing water dilemma. This principle is simply that, in biology, and certainly with humans, organisms do not migrate, evolve or actively address negative conditions until the pain becomes unbearable. Once that threshold is reached, there will be migration (think dust bowl era for us humans), or evolution, which for people means policies, process and economic manipulation. Areas with ample water and the promise of seasonal replenishing will be highly attractive for those considering migration. While Idaho, Oregon and Washington are experiencing reduced precipitation, many areas enjoy enough annual rainfall and runoff from snowpack that serious drought is not yet a huge concern. This means, for those states with interest in economic growth, that water has become the most valuable asset for attracting business investment and workers who are either victims of drought or wise enough to migrate ahead of the rush. This potential loss of commerce and workers is serious business for states reeling from drought, but just as serious for those interested in economic vitality. As I see it, water is now an enormous attribute for any state, county or city with the good fortune to have ample supplies. However, the key question will be how to balance in-migration of users with water supplies that could, based on the vagaries of a capricious jet stream, dwindle over time. While there is heartfelt compassion and empathy for what is occurring in Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California, there are emerging opportunities for businesses, farmers, and workers who seek new options. We must begin to grasp the full measure of what long-term water shortage will do to the national and regional economy and its impact on families, communities and the workforce. Water is powerful. While we recognize its power as a natural force, we must now accept its power to erode, alter or build various facets of modern human society. Throughout history, water has given rise to civilizations and the lack of it has helped destroyed them. For a while, we may have tamed rivers, built reservoirs, and harnessed the power of water. Perhaps we must now recognize that we have little control over some natural forces that will ultimately find their own course. Our best option is to respond with wisdom and prudence to salvage what we can and build on what nature brings in the years ahead. JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith 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 three 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).

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).

Optimism

There is an interesting connection between the passive ‘this too shall pass’ approach to life and the ability to embrace a life energized by relentlessly positive self-fulfilling prophecies. While there is historic credence in the ‘what goes up, must come down’ view, there is also value in accepting the responsibility to change things for the better. These are not countervailing visions. Because the plot always turns, there are bound to be periods of uncertainty, decline and recalibration. But every new challenge introduces opportunities to explore, innovate and evolve.

The current year represents this view. As with most New Years, it began with hope, but throughout was plagued with missteps and disharmony, misadventures and disconnects. But as it draws to a close, the American spirit must be recognized for a DOW that has set new records, the lowest unemployment in six years, millions of new jobs, escalating productivity, and growing consumer confidence. While we have not achieved the annual GDP anticipated, Q4 has been quite strong and may be a precursor to a more robust 2015.

America is a land of self-fulfillment; it is energized by opportunity, vision and latitude. As fortunate members of this society, we can seek, fail, seek again and succeed. We can try virtually anything and pursue illusory whim or calculated goal. This unlimited horizon has been and will continue to be the genesis of America’s strength and character. It is what leads us to believe that we can overcome any obstacle and win through the most arduous events. We are optimists who seem to be able to self-prescribe and heal our various maladies. Whether an external threat or our self-induced chronic diseases of congressional ineptitude, social bigotry, economic inequality, apathy and inane social media, we ultimately rally toward progress. However, the question remains, Will this continue?

Beginning with so many uncertainties, 2014 did not appear to have much chance to become a banner year. But in many ways it may become the launch point for additional progress in 2015. But that progress will compete with darker and more ominous forces. International unrest will divide nations as each seeks its own center and pursues its unique vision of sovereignty and prosperity; economies will continue to struggle due to resource, educational, infrastructure and social disparities; and those who desire to dictate the path of others will continue to assert their influence through conflict rather than reasoned discourse. It will remain a dangerously fragmented and contentious world that is growing warmer in more ways than we can imagine.

Is this to say we are not ready, excited and full of spirit? Certainly not! Looking back through history at many end-of-year scenarios, there have always been reasons for concern. But do we, as American’s, fold our tent, claiming that it is just too difficult, dangerous, or uncertain to give it our best? No.

I see slow economic growth but have embraced a ‘slow but steady’ posture. Congress will continue to be a mystery, as contention, distrust, greed, and power continue to be principal motivators, rather than vision, accountability and collaboration. The Middle East will be problematic, but, if the U.S. can begin to understand that complex mix of cultures and allow them to sort out their own social polarities, we may earn less of their attention. Innovation, productivity and job growth should continue their upward trajectory, but with fluctuations and potential DOW decline. The keys have not changed: patience, good data, strategic planning, employee development, and commitment to the ‘long-view.’ I have faith; I am a believer who is confident that 2015 will be another challenging, unpredictable, convoluted but rewarding New Year. Whether we’re ready or not, it’s here and is bringing a truckload of exciting new opportunities.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow Tie With 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 three 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).

Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda

This short essay may imply a tinge of retrospection that may result in revelation or at least casual rethinking. We launched into 2014 with anticipation of a reasonably productive year and maybe some real progress in several areas. The good news is that that economy does appear to be gaining overall strength even though it will no doubt fluctuate a bit as the world turns. While I embrace a measure of optimism and continue to assume the best, I am somewhat troubled by continuing reports of unemployment, underemployment and, perhaps more worrisome, the growing number of people dropping out of the workforce. The latter phenomenon skews employment numbers but the emerging stories behind this mass abandonment seem to signal a deeper, more pervasive malaise.

The central and most troubling social questions are, ‘What were people thinking all those years when times were good? Did they plan for the potential of a downturn or for the prospect that their job might not last forever? Did they save money, live within their means, and acquire additional skills while times were good? Did they pay attention to the many campaigns encouraging retraining or take advantage of myriad retraining programs?’

Stories abound of struggling breadwinners underemployed in minimum wage jobs, if they can find work at all. Displaced workers lament they have looked for months or even years for work after having been displaced or abandoned by their former employers. There is no way around the fact that this is sad and troubling. However, when one begins to explore the deeper circumstances contributing to the current dilemma, it becomes clear that many of these people were good folks who never, ever thought, ‘What if?’ Many purchased homes they really couldn’t afford, had little in savings, splurged on every conceivable toy, did not seek new knowledge and skills, and for years generally ignored admonitions to, ‘live within your means, save, and prepare for a challenging future.’

The ongoing debate over extended unemployment benefits is illuminating the plight of millions. To be sure, some were victims of scams (which, with good counsel might have been avoided) or medical emergencies that drained precious financial reserves, but on the whole, these were rarer than you would think. Others had grown up in environments that did not promote education, advancement, or a bright future. But millions of the citizens now struggling were complicit in their predicament. The underlying debate over unemployment benefits is now subtly addressing the value of continuing benefits to those who did not actively participate in their own preventive measures. Will these benefits merely extend the malaise or, worse, promote it? Are we creating a broad, deep stratum of America that takes little or no responsibility for their own misfeasance or lack of foresight?

Those advocating ongoing assistance for those actively seeking retraining or repositioning for the future are addressing this social challenge. This country must take care of those who cannot care for themselves, protect those who are unable to protect themselves, and extend a hand to those who have experienced unavoidable catastrophes. However, there must also be a clear message sent to those who have consistently had the means to change their lives but have chosen not to do so.

Another round of unemployment benefits was prudent under the circumstances. The future, however, will belong to those wise enough to recognize the value of knowledge and skill acquisition in stable or emerging industries. Education and continuous training is essential in a global market that is increasingly technical, computer-driven, and skill-specific. Those who for the past several decades have lived for the moment are now caught in a whirlwind of new concepts, technologies and expectations that are difficult to grasp, let alone master. So, with a nod to Darwin, they are passed over for those more adept in this rapidly evolving world.

There is no castigation or admonition here. Reflection and a retrospective view can, at least on the surface, seem cruel. But the real message is that most of us, at some point, and often at many points in our lives, have choices. It is said that to become wise, you have to have been unwise. The real test is whether we, as individuals or as a society, will have the wisdom to see the future and have the discipline to make sensible personal and collective decisions that prepare us to thrive in the 21st Century.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow Tie

With 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 three 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).