Lack of Knowledge about your older workers may lead to disaster


Ignorance is not an effective strategy!
Ignorance is not an effective strategy!

I read a very interesting blog post by Dave DeLong at the Harvard Business Review blog network. DeLong specializes in aging worker issues. This particular post was about the skills gap that many companies will or are facing.
Four scenarios
DeLong did a survey of manager’s about their perception of the effect that an aging population of Baby Boomers will have on their businesses. His results were, quite frankly, shocking to me. He found “…only 4% of this same group saw the aging workforce as an immediate threat to performance. Most expect the effects of aging Boomers to come 3-5 years (37%) or in 5-10 years (37%) out. About 20% don’t see the aging workforce as a concern at all.” Because so many see this as a “future” issue they are concentrating on the current source of pain, the inability to find young skilled talent for current positions, few are concentrating on what skill sets will be exiting the workforce in the not-too-distant future.
There are some managers who have recognized that current shortages are hurting their businesses. They are not paying attention, however, to what the future shortages may be and how damaging the loss of critical skills may be.
To this end DeLong made an important statement that I believe all businesses should heed, assuming you have older workers. He said “To mitigate the most serious effects of skills shortages, you must accurately diagnose their causes and risks.” DeLong said if you do this four issues will be discovered.

  • Scenario #1

The first scenario is where you discover that your aging workforce impacts the company capabilities significantly and the company is aware of what those skill sets are. Companies in this scenario have put knowledge retention efforts in place and have developed mentoring programs to help transfer knowledge to younger workers. Companies in the scenario understand the importance of effective relationships between older and younger workers. They watch for conflict in these situations and move to smooth over difficulties.

  • Scenario #2

In this scenario companies have realized they have a critical skill shortage, but have determined it has nothing to do with its aging work force. Generally these skills are in technology areas, but not necessarily, but they are in areas that did not exist ten years ago. Since it they are new skill sets few baby boomers will have possessed them, at least to the point of creating a skill shortage. Companies in these scenarios are trying to do whatever they can to attract and retain the needed skill sets. DeLong gives an example that I have seen done in my son’s company. He has been put on an advisory committee for the local university to help with what skills should be taught in the current and future curriculum.

  • Scenario #3

This scenario involves companies that know they have a problem they just don’t know the specifics and really have no idea how to determine, or have not made the effort to determine, what skill sets are going to be exiting the organization. My guess is these are companies with poor or no performance management system. They probably have out of date job descriptions and a manager could probably not tell you what his or her people really did on a day to day basis.

  • Scenario #4

This is the “head in the sand” scenario. These people have no idea if their aging workforce loss will be a problem. They are also not aware if there is any looming skill gap in their business. As DeLong suggests if you are in a low skill industry you might be able to get away with this for a while, but in the long term it will most likely be damaging to your business.
Inventory is the solution
Every business needs to have a detailed profile of their entire employee population. Are you listening HR? Want to make an impact, a strategic impact? Then detail for each person their age, knowledge, education, skills needed to do their current job, leadership experience and what proprietary knowledge they possess. When will they be retiring? What knowledge and to whom have they passed it on?
When you have this type of inventory in place you can then start planning and adjusting as needed to avert, or at least lessen, any skill shortage impact.

1 thought on “Lack of Knowledge about your older workers may lead to disaster”

  1. Mike,
    As always a relevant and important post. Organizations must “want the change they need” in order to move forward. From experience, tact in addressing this issue with senior leadership is paramount. I totally agree this is an excellent way for HR to remain or become a true partner tot he business as these plans and programs will have lasting impacts on the organization. Conversely, failing to act could have devastating impacts.

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