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How to solve the labor shortage

Resources | February 1, 2019 | By:

Think about your local hospital. Picture it in your mind. Think about the people who work there and the work they do. Now imagine that this hospital closed, and so did many of the clinics. Can you imagine your community without access to health care? How would that change your life?

As far-fetched as this scenario may sound, it’s more realistic than many people realize. In the United States, an estimated 700,000 nurses will retire or leave the workforce within the next seven years, and there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill this gap.

Health care isn’t the only industry challenged with a workforce crisis. It’s apparent in every industry and it’s been addressed at the UN and World Economic Forum as a chief global concern.

We’re experiencing the perfect storm: an average of 10,000 baby boomers retiring each day and rapidly advancing technology, which is creating new careers all the time. To make matters worse, employee turnover and disengagement is at an all-time high. Since the year 2000, Gallup reports an estimated 70 percent of the workforce is disengaged and employers are now losing $30.5 billion annually to employee turnover costs.

But amidst all this gloom and doom, there is a ray of hope. Not all is lost. The workforce crisis isn’t insurmountable and it isn’t due to a lack of smart, ambitious, innovative people. The workforce crisis is the result of poor planning and failure to effectively lead, engage and train our changing workforce.

In other words, our resistance to change created this crisis.

How we got here

The Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s, and everything and everyone had a system or process to follow. The 20th century carried on these same processes, systems and hierarchies. During this era, the baby boomers were born and became the workforce majority for 34 years.

Now, we’re well into the 21st century. The generations born into this post-Industrial era have always known the world to be driven by knowledge, innovation, globalization, customization and instant gratification. This generation—the millennials, currently ages 23 to 36—now comprise the majority of the workforce.

However, too few organizations have shifted away from 20th-century workforce practices.

Here’s how you know if you’re working for an organization rooted in the 20th century:

• Morale is low.

• Employee turnover and membership decline are a constant.

• A small group of people have all the decision-making power.

• New opportunities and technologies are shot down based on their impact to the legacy business.

• Time is spent working on strategic plans, which end up forgotten, and the organization goes back to doing things the way they’ve always been done.

The failure to evolve is causing employee disengagement. Simply put, the generations raised in the post-Industrial era feel like they don’t belong in Industrial Revolution-managed organizations.

Belonging, by definition, means you have a sense of ownership and a secure relationship. But in Industrial Revolution-managed organizations, hierarchies take precedence and silos prosper. The most engaging organizations in the modern era, like Google, disregard age or years of experience and eliminate silos to ensure everyone feels empowered and an important and valued part of the team.

Where we’re going

For the first time in history, there are more job openings than there are eligible workers to fill them. We can no longer deny that we’re in a workforce crisis, but how do we fix it?

When I conducted research for my book Talent Generation: How Visionary Organizations Are Redefining Work and Achieving Greater Success (2018), I discovered three core findings:

• We must be faster to change. Many organizations are lagging woefully behind in this disruptive era, still lacking the structure, strategy and culture to manage employees effectively in the 21st century. To succeed, several factors need to be modernized and addressed.

• We must prioritize talent and leadership development. The pressing issue is no longer just talent management; it’s talent generation. It’s imperative for organizations to engage younger generations of talent, train them and find ways to prepare pipelines of future talent.

• There is no other organization better suited to solve the workforce crisis than membership associations. Associations represent millions of employees, as well as industry interests in government and education. They have the power to create real and meaningful change. Businesses will be looking to these associations to help them solve the workforce crisis.

Consider the Ohio Society of CPAs, which is already planning for 2031—the year when the state’s number of high school graduates is expected to drop 11 percent. In 2016, resources, products, services, mission, vision and brand were revamped to focus on workforce development. The association even launched a membership for high school students.

Or look at the American Osteopathic Association, which revamped its hierarchy to require that at least 30 percent of every decision-making board and committee is comprised of young professionals with less than five years of experience.

In both cases, membership has grown and communities have re-engaged. When organizations are intentional about planning for the future, and empower their communities to shape those futures, positive change inevitably occurs.

In October, the United Nations met to launch Youth2030, ushering up a call to action to leaders worldwide, urging them to start working with young people and engaging them in problem solving. Our world today is very young, home to 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24—the largest youth population in history. And today’s young people face enormous challenges due to globalization, new technologies, displacement, shrinking civic space, changing labor markets and the impact of climate change, yet their participation is often ignored and overlooked.

If you want to know what the future will bring, ask a young person. If you want to engage young workers or build a better talent pipeline, invite young people to help. Follow the lead of the Ohio Society of CPAs and the American Osteopathic Association and simply make room for new ideas and new people.

I recommend you start by having conversations with 30 people under the age of 30. Ask them to describe the ideal leader and the ideal job. Ask them what’s challenging them. And ask them for their opinions and guidance on how to build a workforce designed to inspire and engage their generation and generations to come.

We’ve just experienced the most disruptive decade in history, observing a tremendous amount of change in a very short period of time, and there’s no sign of it stopping or slowing down. As we move from the computer age into the cyber age, the workforce crisis will become even more apparent as new industries, jobs and skills emerge, so it’s imperative our businesses plan for the future and engage young talent now.

The struggle to retain and engage talent can be resolved simply by putting people first and being future focused.

Help is wanted—needed—to make talent a priority and put an end to the workforce crisis. Don’t go it alone. Ask young people to help.

Sarah Sladek is the CEO of XYZ University (, a leadership consulting firm based in Minneapolis, Minn. She is the author of five books on the topic of membership and employee engagement among younger generations. Her latest book, “Talent Generation: How Visionary Organizations Are Redefining Work and Achieving Greater Success,” identifies the core characteristics of organizations capable of succeeding and engaging talent in the midst of disruption.

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