retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

This is a column about the future of our workforce, not politics. Please re read that line again if you get spun into a frenzy by the next two paragraphs.

It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally someone in Washington speaks the truth. It happened last week when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke issued an unusually blunt warning about the nation coming to grips with the rising storms of debt and the aging population.

One line said it all. The US, Bernanke said, “must begin now to prepare for this coming demographic transition.”

It’s hard to argue the point. And again, this column isn’t about politics or fiscal policy; it’s about the coming storm for employers everywhere, especially in the supermarket industry. Because while no one would consider the current economic climate a cause for celebration, the truth is that it has masked our manpower issue.

With unemployment running high and long-term savings plans like 401Ks running low, industry in general finds a glut of workers looking to start or stay in work. In many ways, that’s good. But it won’t last forever. In fact, it won’t even last a decade.

The harsh reality is that the children of the Post-War Baby Boom will soon start passing age 65 daily and that migration will continue for the next 18 years. Just as Boomers crowded maternity wards and classrooms in their younger lives, their aging will have powerful implications for the nation beyond swelling the ranks of AARP.

Look inside your own company and calculate the number of Boomers currently holding jobs in top, middle and lower management. Because of simple demographics, the Boomers are everywhere. And like it or not we Boomers at some point are going to want to, or have to, move on.

When we do we’ll leave an enormous management vacuum that virtually every company will have to fill. I became acutely aware of this problem while doing research for FMI’s Future Connect event last year. It took little effort to find that the Boomer drain problem was already causing concern for the US military, the nation’s airline industry and virtually every other part of the US economy.

This problem is even worse in other parts of the world, where the population is aging faster and the influx of immigrants doesn’t fill in the gap. Kevin summarized some of these important points in his radio commentary last week. As his article pointed out, there are many reasons why the United States is uniquely positioned for even more economic growth as these demographic changes take place worldwide.

But those macro benefits could produce problems inside many companies in this industry because a growing shortage of labor means enhanced competition for the best workers. Many times that’s a competition the food industry loses. So the challenge for companies is to heed Bernanke’s words in a personal way and prepare now for the coming demographic transition. That means a tough examination of hiring and retention policies now to make certain the best people stay. That means management training programs now to ensure the right people are ready to lead when their time comes.

Yes, it seems strange do raise these issues at a time when unemployment is high and workers are readily available, but that’s really the perfect time for action. Consider for one moment that in the depths of the current economic crisis, Intel announced a $3 billion investment in its Arizona campus. The reason, according to one Intel executive, was to have the chip-maker fully ready for growth when economies started growing again.

An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure. Especially when it translates into opportunity.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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