Slouching Toward a Labor Shortage

Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to listen to a member of the Department of Labor address an HR/staffing conference. This wasn’t a huge conference, so we did not rate the actual Secretary of Labor. Rather we got the Assistant Under-Secretary for More-Or-Less Aligned Issues Occurring on Alternate Tuesdays (or something like that). Even though he chose not to speak about report writing on excel spreadsheets (a big hit in HR/staffing today referred to as metrics) or about how to update forms (another big hit amongst the masses), he did manage to come up with an interesting issue: we are running out of people. The baby-boomer generation was, and is, approaching the accepted retirement age. Ten years ago, as it does today, it represented about 40% of the professional workforce. So ten years ago the HR/Staffing industry became progressively aware of a pending labor shortage due not only to extended economic growth, but also to a decline in the actual number of workers. If baby-boomers were water, we would call it a drought. So you can understand how surprised I was last week flying home from business in Kansas City to read an article in one of those “How Bored Am I?” airline magazines discussing the pending loss of the baby-boomer workforce, and the potential for dire consequences to the U.S. economy to meet the demand for trained employees to maintain and grow business. The article was written as if this was news: “Martians arrive Tuesday; baby-boomers retiring Thursday. Film at eleven.” The big difference was that “D Day” ó the hypothetical date when 75% of that generation will be on SSI and not W2 ó was now a mere ten years away. Ten years wasted doing nothing, again. Deja vu is not only an album by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, it is a way of life in HR/staffing. But of even greater concern were the recommendations being made by experts in the field:

  • More aggressive recruiting: the moral equivalent of buying a bigger bucket when the well runs dry.
  • More efforts to “recruit” from competitors: you know, the other people without enough employees stealing from you.
  • Expanded H1-B visa allowances: because nothing says you care more than recruiting people you can treat poorly. And nothing works better in motivating a workforce than the veiled threat of deportation.
  • Greater efforts to market opportunity: just in case that diminishing resource has the time to see your ad while reviewing the multitude of jobs offers, sign-on bonuses, and fending off calls from search recruiters.
  • Use more consultants: because 1099s are not people, right? Otherwise a “people shortage” would probably translate into a 1099 shortage. If they were people that is. But they must not be, since that seems to be the solution of choice for so many.

After reading this particular article I had a desire to rent one of my all time favorite movies, “Casablanca.” I just suddenly had an urge to hear Claude Rains say, “Round up the usual suspects” ó as if he had been a VP of HR/staffing his whole life. The outlook for the future turns even brighter (sarcasm) when you add to the mix the fact that 18% fewer students entering college this year are signed up for courses in business or technical areas. So if your company is flipping a coin on whether to develop financial software or publish Elizabethan poetry, I highly recommend the latter based on the educational pursuits of the class of 2003. Then again, I am sure that most of these candidates will profess to have that ever-so-difficult-to-find, life-saving skill, “quick learner.” I wonder if we really need to live through the next decade? Maybe we should just replay the 1990s all over again and avoid the embarrassment of not having a solution for a long-term problem, a long time coming, other than “rounding up the usual suspects.” Appearing to be ill-prepared, ill-equipped, and preoccupied with lesser issues is something many of our clients have grown accustomed to. Why change now? Let’s put this in perspective:

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  • Ten years ago, your VP of Sales was made aware that in twenty years 40% of his client base would disappear, and to date he or she has done nothing.
  • Ten years ago your VP of Marketing was made aware that the product line was approaching obsolescence and the market would dwindle by 40% and to date he or she has done nothing.
  • Ten years ago your VP of Purchasing was made aware that the number of suppliers of raw materials was going to decline by 40% and to date he or she has done nothing.
  • Ten years ago your VP of Finance was made aware that the declining revenue stream, if not arrested, would reduce operating revenue by 40% in twenty years and to date he or she has done nothing about long-term debt, changing acquisition planning, or anything else.

My guess is that you would have almost certainly had replacement requisitions for all of the sub-standard executives above on your desktop if this was a real situation. So, anyway:

  • Ten years ago your VP of HR/staffing was made aware that the candidate pool, both in numbers and needed skills, was going to decline by 40% and to date he or she has done nothing.

Should we add another requisition to the pile? Some problems and issues are the sole property of the current company for which you work. The problems and solutions are within your budget, authority, and involvement horizon. But sometimes trends are beyond our scope, our budget, and our problem-solving authority. All too often, sadly, the lack of ability to resolve an issue is also the permission we need to ignore it. All we seem to be able to do is hope and pray that somebody with a bigger paycheck and an office with a bigger window (with which to view the “big picture”) is hard at work solving this very issue right now. Well, they’re not! Why? Because the keepers of the siren for all issues pertaining to HR/staffing are yet again fussing and fuming over the use of “bar graphs” vs. “pie charts” or the best online tool to use to file resumes. All the while, within their career window the sole purpose of their existence ó “to locate, recruit, and retain the best possible employees needed to accomplish the corporate mission” ó will be drastically downgraded. If I sound harsh, good. I was trying real hard to make a point. There is no “10 Quick and Easy Steps” to recruiting in a drought. The issue we are facing as an economy and an industry are daunting and soon to be visible on the horizon. The solutions are not going to be implemented this quarter and have an impact next year. This one will require several approaches we have not yet tried at a level not usually considered. The mission is critical, essential, and at this moment, in doubt. But, if that does not excite the heck out of you…well, there’s always a need for report writers. Until Part 2, think about it. Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE,, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


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