Jayne Gest: Employee shortages — A glimpse into aging workforces across industries brings some surprising thoughts

“You can see the number of people actually coming into this field are behind the number of people leaving. Over the last couple of years, having a significant recession on top of a sort of natural aging phenomena is an added problem.”

Those are the words of Sandy Doyle-Ahern, president of EMH&T Inc., one of the largest civil engineering firms based in Ohio and subject of this month’s cover story.

She talked about how organizations in the engineering world are aware of the problem, and papers are being published on what is essentially a science and engineering issue in the United States.

It reminded me of a few years ago when I had this same conversation with those in the nursing profession. It also brought up a number of questions — no surprise if you know me; questions are something I always have.

Just how common is it for industries today to have a shortage of qualified candidates? Will this get worse as more baby boomers retire? How did the nursing industry deal with this issue? Can others learn from it?

Researching aging workforces

To learn more, I turned to the great oracle Google. A search of “aging workforce industry” gave me 1.29 million results.

On the first page alone, I saw the industries of aerospace, aviation, construction, electric and water utilities, energy, health care — and the entire state of Michigan (OK, not the entire state, but a paper on Michigan’s aging workforce in various industries).

Clearly, this isn’t restricted to one area, and it doesn’t look like it will end any time soon. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day until about the year 2030.

The workforce shortage, however, may not be as much of a problem as we’ve heard in the news.

When you think about it, many of these same baby boomers won’t be retiring at 65 because they don’t have enough savings to live on for 20 or 30 years. This probably doesn’t sound great if you’re a baby boomer — sorry, Mom — but on a macro-level, workforce shortages could be less than expected.

I guess an older workforce brings its own unique challenges for employers who have to juggle intergenerational relationships, age discrimination, physical job demands, training and flexible work schedules. But when you’re gritting your teeth dealing with these issues, it’s a good idea to keep in mind the alternate of having no qualified workers at all.

Establishing a pipeline

Relatively satisfied with my new knowledge of the state of America’s workforce, I looked into my last question: Whatever happened with the nursing shortage?

It turns out some progress has been made, according to a 2013 paper from the Health Resources and Services Administration, Bureau of Health Professions and National Center for Health Workforce Analysis.

The absolute number of registered nurses younger than age 30 has increased, although one-third of the nursing workforce still is older than 50. Nurse workforces also have become significantly more diverse.

The pipeline of new nurses, measured by those who pass national licensing exams, has grown at 108 percent for RNs and 80 percent for licensed practical nurses.

I’m sure I’m simplifying this, but it sounds like if the need is great enough, and people hear about it, they will come — slowly. Hopefully, in another 10 years, I’ll read about this same kind of progress for engineering and science workers.

Jayne Gest is the associate editor of Smart Business Columbus. Jayne is interested in the people and businesses making a difference in Columbus. Reach her at [email protected] or (800) 988-4726, ext. 281.

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