The nightmare that is plaguing many companies as the economy
recovers is the lack of skilled workers. There is no one cause for the
shortages but a significant driver is the loss of Baby Boomer brain
power. But the good news is that there can be a happy ending.
One company that is doing an exceptional job at managing their aging
workforce is the National Rural Electric Co-operative Association
(NRECA). I’m very proud to say that NRECA and many of their members
have been clients of my company Success Performance Solutions for
several years. So I was thrilled today when I turned the page in The Economist
and saw their success story about how they are managing their aging
workforce. The NRECA story isn’t only about well-deserved recognition
but it serves as a model that other companies can use too.
The shortage of skilled worker problem is already acute in many
industries like healthcare, aerospace, energy, and even technology. It
has been exacerbated by a failure to plan, despite ample warning, about
the impact of aging Baby Boomers.
The article in The Economist cites
The Sloan Centre on Ageing and Work at Boston College survey which
found that 40% of employers worry that the ageing of the workforce will
have a negative or very negative impact on their business. And yet
despite this dismal warning, another survey last year by two British
management institutes found that only 14 percent of managers think that
their workplaces are prepared to cope with the greying of the workforce.
A significant number of older workers also became collateral damage
as a result of how employers managed the recession. Many aging workers
were forced to take early retirement while others were told to leave
before the door hit them on their behinds. In either case, companies
lost not only basic skills required to run their business but all the
unwritten knowledge that swirled in and between the heads of veteran
workers. Now many companies are finding that replacing one old body with
a younger model isn’t very effective when life’s experience and
maturity are ignored.
How did NRECA do it? First of all, they recognized that couldn’t
change long-term demographic trends. They could however respond
differently and more effectively. The NRECA chose to see older workers
as part of their modern workforce, not drags on productivity and
performance and costs associated with healthcare costs and benefits.
But setting the strategy and implementing well are two different
things. After all the literature and Internet are filled with stories
about the rigidity, curmudgeon attitude, and poor technology skills of
older workers. References abound too how older workers just don’t have
the physical ability to meet the physical requirements of many jobs.
While that might be true, more jobs these days require more brain than
brawn: according to the Urban Institute think tank, 46 percent of jobs
in America require little if any physical demand.
And despite Millennials like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg changing
the way we communicate, several aging Baby Boomers like Steve Jobs
(Apple). Larry Ellison (Oracle), and John Chambers (Cisco) can hardly be
dismissed as non-relevant in the world of technology even today.
Besides according to a recent study by the Kauffman Foundation,
Americans aged 55-64 have launched more businesses than those aged 20-34
in every year since 1996.
But as The Economist author aptly notes, “None of this means that
adjusting to an ageing workforce will be easy. Companies will need to
rethink the traditional career ladder that linked seniority to pay and
power.” They will also have to address the dramatic differences in
work-life attitudes between the aging Baby Boomers, the trapped cohort
of Generation X, and the emerging Generation Y workers.
The statement that caught the most attention was that companies and
people must learn to “treat retirement as a process rather than a sudden
event.” That solution seems to be a great fit for both the business
that can’t afford to go cold turkey when a skilled Baby Boomer retires
and for the Baby Boomer who willingly wants to continue working or is
forced to work for financial reasons.
Congratulations NRECA! And for all the other employers who expect to
remain in business have no choice but to learn how to deal with a
rapidly aging workforce just like NRECA.