As Yogi Berra famously observed, it's déjà vu all over again. One year ago we noted that despite rhetoric about a "jobless recovery," the available data showed that as the United States emerged from recession, the economy was also recovering jobs. Today, hiring and keeping skilled workers and capable managers continues to be a major challenge for U.S. manufacturers.
Some employers are moving to address the skilled-labor shortage by winning the hearts and minds of the very young, according to Sue Shellenbarger. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, she reports that in an effort to tap future workers while they are in middle school-or earlier-big employers, including IBM, Texas Instruments, Exxon Mobil and Boeing, are increasing their backing of career-driven summer camps. These camps promote kids' interest in fields ranging from engineering to computer security, she says, and are yielding new insights into how to help kids explore promising careers.
At the other end of the age scale, the number of older Americans in the workforce has been increasing steadily over the past 10 years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says workers 55 and older accounted for 16.9 percent of the employed in January 2006, up from 12.2 percent in January 1996. The graying of the workforce is not necessarily confined to the shop floor. Silicon Valley, America's high-tech capitol long famous for its young engineers and brash entrepreneurs, is becoming friendlier to over-50 workers, says Phred Dvorak. America's baby boomers begin turning 60 this year and will start retiring. But, he notes in The Wall Street Journal, demographic trend trackers say there won't be enough younger workers to replace them. So companies will face staff shortages unless they can persuade some older employees to put off retirement.
At the same time, The Wall Street Journal reports that there are nearly 15,000 auto workers in that industry's various jobs banks, a two-decade old program under which these workers get paid after their companies stop needing them. Workers in the jobs banks must perform some company-approved activity to earn wages and benefits that often top $100,000 a year. Many do volunteer jobs or go back to school; the rest clock time sitting in a plant. The programs, which are up for renewal next year when union contracts expire, are expected to cost the U.S. auto companies between $1.4 billion and $2 billion this year.
There is no sense, common or otherwise, to a scenario with-on the one hand-good jobs going begging, and-on the other hand-thousands of capable workers being paid to do no useful work. The unions and company leaders best work together to solve this paradox, lest they hear a knock on the door one day, and open it to find bureaucrats standing there saying "we're from the government, and we're here to help."
Editorial: Workforce Paradox
April 1, 2006