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Solving Industry’s ‘Aging Workforce’ Problem (Part 1 of a 2-Part Series)

Industry News
Aging Workforce

Solving Industry’s ‘Aging Workforce’ Problem (Part 1 of a 2-Part Series)

Author: Ian Baynes


This is not a new question. Industrial process plants have had a significant number of highly skilled workers retire over the past decade. According to the Washington Post, approximately 10,000 baby boomers retire every single day, taking with them vast amounts of institutionalized knowledge. To compound the issue, industry is also experiencing difficulty finding replacements because the skill base just isn’t there anymore.

While the problem of our aging workforce has many complexities, there is one concept that underscores a viable solution. To put it plainly, companies can solve the ‘aging workforce’ problem by building the much needed capacity in their existing organizations.

It is highly likely you’ve heard that the solution to your workforce issues is already within your company, just like you’ve probably heard company leaders say “our employees are our most valuable asset”. The problem here is that few know how to consistently and successfully capitalize on their existing employees and rarely demonstrate that they truly believe what they are saying by investing in them [and yes, your employees see this]. So we need to step back and change what we do if we truly want to capitalize on our existing workforce and offset the issues relating to the loss of critical skills and knowledge as well as the inability to attract new, fresh talent. We need to look at new ways to build capacity in our existing teams to build the workforce and leaders of the future. I should note that, although training does play an important role, the effort required is greater than simply sending our high potentials on training courses or back to school to get a post graduate degree.

It also does not mean bringing in expensive consultants to march our employees through broad-based training courses with a goal of “reskilling”. Why? Because raising the skills of your teams without changing the culture and work structure around them will limit any ability for them to use the new skills they have just learnt. Plus it’s been proven numerous times that classroom training is ineffective by its self. Contemporary adult learning principles, utilizing the 70/20/10 rule, result in significantly higher learning skills retention rates. Not surprisingly, the 70 relates to 70% of the time learning hands on, 20% learning from peers [such as those nearing the end of an illustrious career], and only 10% from “death by PowerPoint”. For those of us who can remember, think about apprenticeships and how they worked in years past. We would pair a fresh young mind with a seasoned and highly skilled employee and watch as they passed on years of knowledge, tips, and skills by first demonstrating and then watching and correcting. This is both learning and mentoring in its purest form, and something I feel we have forgotten how to do.

By using the skills, tools, and resources already within the walls of our companies, we have what is necessary to slow the growing skills gap by building capacity in our existing workforce.

There is another point that I haven’t discussed yet: “our most important asset”. How many of our existing employees really believe that their career is truly THEIR responsibility? How many look to their company waiting for it to “do something for them”? How many become disgruntled and leave because they believe that there was no career potential or progression? How many tell their family, friends, and professional network not to work there because the organization is flat and there is no room for growth? Probably a lot more than you think and the impact is a hidden issue that slows your ability to attract new talent.

Unfortunately, it’s a reality that many of our associates look to their company to manage their careers for them instead of taking hold of the wheel and driving themselves. Just think would could happen if we took the time to understand their career aspirations, align them with company needs and goals, and then help them through mentoring and focused learning to achieve their dream.

So how do you get started?

First and foremost, be open and honest with yourselves and recognize the problem we are facing as an industry – you are not alone! What is proposed in this article is only a strawman outline of building blocks of a plan to help increase capacity across your organizations incredible resource pool. The rest is up to you, but a good place to start is set out below.

  1. Create a Succession Plan – this is a great place to start, especially because most companies don’t have them. It’s also a great leadership development activity as it forces individuals to think outside of the box, debate who’s next, and then discuss on a peer-to-peer basis before its finalized and signed off on.
  1. Skills Gap Analysis – Not discussed above, but important nevertheless. One of the outcomes of a succession plan is a degree of clarity on the skills required to support it and more importantly the skills missing from the individuals in the succession pool. Take the time to record what’s required, you will need it later on in the process.
  1. Create a Career Development Plan – This is a company culture shifting activity and as such needs time and attention from both the executive leaders and team members. It needs to be done correctly and facilitated, typically by Human Resources, to make sure the information shared is handled correctly. My experience has shown that not all team members are willing to share their career plans and not all leaders are willing to listen and consider the positive implications over the negative aspect of possibly losing a key player in their group. When managed and executed correctly this is probably one of the best relationship building exercises you can do with your team.
  1. Implement a Mentoring Plan – this is the most complex of the 4 steps and by far the biggest investment of time and resources. It needs to have an organizational leader and have buy-in from the most senior executives. Take your time, do the research, even bring in a consultant if needed (make sure to get a number of references before fully engaging with a consultant). Above all, make sure you’re comfortable with the process and have a strong plan of execution and success measurement BEFORE you kick it off. This is possibly the most rewarding part of this program.
  1. Implement a Training Program – like mentoring, this is a large investment of time and resources; however the end game, if executed correctly, will net a significant increase in overall skills across your company that directly support your long-term needs vs training for training sake.

In the first part of this series, we discussed the issues relating to our aging workforce, caused by the exiting of the baby boomers – and it will take our time and investment in our existing employees from which we will reap great rewards. Not only will it reduce the risk associated with both planned and unplanned attrition, it will also create for you a rich pool of individuals ready to step into positions as they become vacant or take the next big promotion that opens up. It also grows internal followership, good spirit, and positive employee engagement as people see themselves and their co-workers grow both individually and professionally with the full support of the company they chose to work for.

The second part of this series will dive deeper into the 4 Keys to Building Internal Capacity – Succession Planning, Individual Career Planning, Mentoring, and Training.

Read Part 2 Now.


About the Author

Ian BaynesIan Baynes is a Strategy Guy, Guitar Making, music loving, martini enthusiast with a passion for developing people and business.

With a career spanning more than 25 years in global business development and strategic marketing, spanning both the automotive and industrial worlds, Ian has a proven track record for identifying and managing businesses and services in both emerging and large established markets, and has extensive experience in Europe, North America, and Asia.

Specializing in Strategic Business Planning and Execution Ian has helped numerous companies and organizations develop their long term business development growth plans as well as helping them increasing organization capacity to support its execution.

Areas of expertise:

  • Global Business Development
  • Strategic Business Planning and Execution
  • Classic Marketing
  • Brand Strategy Development
  • Resource Planning
  • Industrial Market and Sales Channel Development
  • E-Marketing and Social Media
  • Product Development and Life Cycle Management

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