'Perfect Storm' on Horizon for U.S. Labor Market

The pending convergence of two demographic trends has the potential to create a "perfect storm" for employers across the U.S.

The U.S. workforce, and the nation's population as a whole, is aging. By 2010, nearly one in three U.S. workers will be over the age of 50.

By 2012, more than 21 million new jobs are expected to be created in the U.S. economy. In that time, however, just 17 million new workers will enter the labor pool. Shortages of qualified workers are projected across many industries, including IT.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that demand for IT professionals will grow nearly 50% by 2012, with more than 1.5 million new computer- and IT-related job openings. But the U.S. will have only half that many qualified graduates as a result of the declining number of students enrolling in math and science courses.

In May, the Government Accountability Office released a study that found that the proportion of postsecondary students obtaining degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics has fallen significantly. In 1994 and 1995, 32% of postsecondary students obtained degrees in these fields. That figure fell to 27% in 2003 and 2004.

Competition for talent is likely to increase significantly in the next five to 10 years. Shortages of nurses and other health care professionals have been widely publicized. The same is true for teachers. Many organizations could lose experienced talent in key roles ranging from leadership and sales to certain technical and professional disciplines and many skilled trades. As the relative proportion of younger workers declines, attracting and retaining experienced and reliable workers must become a core business strategy for all employers, regardless of size or type of business.

Not only will industries be competing against one another for the dwindling pool of workers, but so, too, will small and large businesses -- market vs. market, and region vs. region. Added to the mix are foreign-based companies looking for American workers to staff their U.S. operations.

In August, 100 recent U.S. college graduates will head to India to begin four to six months of training at an education center operated by Infosys Technologies Ltd., a growing consulting and IT services provider in Bangalore, India. These grads, the first class drawn by Infosys directly from U.S. campuses, will return to the U.S. after their training to staff the company's operations here.

The fact that employers in many markets will be affected by the looming shortage of workers is evidenced by the broad representation of industries working with the AARP in the Alliance for an Experienced Workforce. The alliance's mission is to help employers understand, plan for and create workplaces that successfully engage and utilize the skills of workers over the age of 50, both now and in the future.

The alliance includes nearly two-dozen participants; among them are the American Association of Community Colleges, the Information Technology Association of America, the NAACP, the National Association of Manufacturers, CompTIA, the National Retail Federation, the Society for Human Resource Management and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Employers will have to make accommodations to address the shortage of workers by implementing new strategies and practices. One such accommodation may be a greater reliance on a flexible workforce, using practices such as part-time work, flexible hours, job sharing, telecommuting, phased retirement and "bridge jobs." The purpose of each of these strategies is to keep workers age 50 and older on the job beyond the point at which they might otherwise retire.

Flexible work schedules are attractive to many people because they allow a balance between work and family responsibilities. According to a report released in May by Hudson Highland Group Inc., a staffing and human resources consulting firm, one in three workers wants flex schedules as part of his overall compensation. Companies must pay closer attention to the work environment and cultural factors that contribute to a positive working experience for all workers, old or young.

Each of these strategies, when implemented properly, can help employers keep older workers on the job longer and smooth the transition and knowledge transfer from one generation of workers to the next.

A growing percentage of older workers are interested in staying in the workforce past the traditional retirement age. Research by the AARP found that 69% of people between the ages of 45 and 74 who are either working or looking for work plan to work in some capacity during their so-called retirement.

Older workers may not want the top jobs. They may be looking for less responsibility and less stress. The challenge for the employer is to present older workers with a workplace environment that makes them want to stay.

An AARP survey of 2,000 workers aged 50 to 70 found that respect from employers, flexible work options, opportunities for training and new experiences, and competitive health care and retirement benefits were the issues identified as most important to the majority of older workers.

The benefit to the organization of retaining older workers is a graceful hand-off of the knowledge. But if not done the right way, it can be very expensive. The AARP estimates that replacing an experienced worker of any age can cost 50% or more of the individual's annual salary in turnover-related costs, with increased costs for jobs requiring specialized skills, advanced training or extensive experience -- qualifications often possessed by 50-plus workers.

So the challenge for employers is twofold: Keep older workers on board, and attract new workers.

Employers that fail to attract and keep the 50-and-over workforce lose a wealth of experience, skills and knowledge that these employees have gained by performing work at each rung of the career ladder. They risk losing core competencies, in-house expertise and mentors for future talent. For the U.S. to maintain its competitive edge in the global economy, employers must establish innovative, sustainable policies and practices that are mutually beneficial to the employer and to the 50-plus worker while planning for the transfer of knowledge, skills, information and workplace culture as these workers begin to fully or partially retire.

John Venator is president and CEO of Computing Technology Industry Association Inc. (CompTIA), the leading trade association representing the business interests of the global IT industry. He is responsible for leading strategy, development and growth efforts for the association and its 20,000-plus member organizations around the world.

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