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How to prevent your business from sleepwalking over the edge of a talent cliff

I remember 1997 as if it were yesterday.  So I can barely get my head around the fact that babies born in that year are now legally old enough to buy a lottery ticket, get married with parental consent and, oh yes, work full-time.

I joined a webinar on “The 2020 Workplace” the other day, the first in a series of 20-minute master classes for time-pressed HR leaders. It wasn’t the usual brand of futurology I had anticipated, but instead presented some real insights and pragmatic guidance as to how organisations can get the best from the current influx of so-called Millennials and prepare for the entrance of the next generation, born from 1997 onwards, into the workplace.

Some of the statistics didn’t surprise me – the attachment to mobile devices, social media and online collaboration among younger employees. However, one slide made me really sit forward: every day in the US alone, workers with 350,000+ years of experience are retired and replaced by workers with around 170,000 hours of experience. Keep that up, and in the next decade, there will be 1.25 billion fewer years of experience in the economy than today. The slide was aptly entitled “The billion year talent cliff” – and businesses over here are undoubtedly sleepwalking towards a similar fate.  The fact that Baby Boomers have been the biggest casualties of job losses throughout the recession compounds the issue.

But it would appear that there is still a chance to address the looming skills gap with appropriate knowledge transfer strategies.  What really encouraged me was that, apparently, the top demands that Millennials impose on their line managers today are (in order): assistance in navigating their career path, straight feedback, mentoring and coaching, and sponsorship for formal development – with flexible working surprisingly trailing in fifth.

Yes, Millennials are devotees of mobile and social technology.  But let’s work with that preference instead of against it through a misplaced concern that these tools are a drain on productivity or a threat to information security. I remember my old boss being similarly up in arms about email when that was first introduced into the company in the early 1990s. 

Organisations like mine owe it to our people and our business success to capitalise on the intergenerational nature of today’s workforce.  My key take-out from the webinar is that we need to develop scalable learning strategies – such as formal mentoring and reverse-mentoring initiatives – built on models of social collaboration. And who knows, maybe the youth of today can teach Baby Boomers like me a thing or two as well.      

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