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Preparing for the 2030 Labor Market

The only constant in the next decade will be change, and the only thing employers know for sure is that the current workforce isn't ready to meet their needs.

​The next 10 years in global employment will bring dramatic technological change, expanding health care needs, unforeseeable energy demands and other developments that experts today can't even guess at. One thing employers can predict for sure: Their current staff won't cut it. 

The U.S. already faces a shortage of qualified employees, with 68 percent of human resource professionals experiencing difficulty recruiting full-time candidates, according to Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) research. Add to this Baby Boomers' looming retirements and the fact that one-third of HR departments work without a training budget, and the picture looks grim.

"We have an aging workforce, slowing fertility rates, a smaller but better-educated cohort of young workers, and tightening or restrictive immigration laws," says Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of the MIT task force on the work of the future in Cambridge, Mass. "All of this is going to create labor scarcity, not abundance."

The key questions CEOs and the HR departments that support them should be asking, Reynolds says, are what types of workers will we need in 10 years and where will we find them. MIT and other workforce-planning experts say they're focused on several trends:

  • Fast-advancing technology, from continued adoption of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence to data-based decision-making.
  • Clogged career ladders for Millennials and Generation X, thanks to Baby Boomers who are reluctant to retire, which prevents younger employees from moving up the ranks.
  • Urgent infrastructure and energy needs, which will provide employment opportunities for engineers, construction workers and scientists. Rapidly rising health care costs, thanks again to aging Boomers. In fact, of the 20 occupations that the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will experience the highest growth rates between 2018 and 2028, a whopping 12 involve health care. Three are in energy (solar photovoltaic installers, wind turbine service technicians, and forest fire inspectors and prevention specialists), and the remaining five involve math or IT.

The health care jobs growing most quickly include the five lowest-paying occupations on the list, from personal care aides earning median salaries of $24,020 in 2018 to phlebotomists with annual median pay of $34,480. Other hot medical professions include nurse practitioners ($107,030) and physician assistants ($108,610).

This illustrates the increasingly barbell-shaped labor market demand, with low-skill and low-pay positions often just as hard to fill as top-paying roles.

"Middle-skill jobs have, in the aggregate, declined," Reynolds says. "Technology has done away with a lot of the back-office operations and clerical work. We have a tremendous amount of demand for data scientists and … oyster shuckers, horse trainers—all of these service-oriented jobs."

Finding skilled tradespeople is another challenge, says Jeremy Eskenazi, SHRM-SCP, managing principal at Riviera Advisors in Long Beach, Calif. He works with many electric and gas utilities that are scared by the dearth of young workers entering skilled trades, such as electricians and welders. A generation ago, unions trained and provided ample blue-collar workers for employers. That no longer happens, he says.

"Because our workforce is aging, so many of the trade roles continue to go unfilled," Eskenazi says. "Those people who are in them now are at the cusp of retirement. There's not a lot of buzz. They're not sexy jobs."

Globally, there will be at least 300 million more people age 65 and older in 2030 than there were in 2014, according to a McKinsey & Co. report. That's a lot of institutional knowledge to replace in the workforce, even with many people staying employed into their late 60s and 70s.

'I’m seeing companies bring back training and development. They’re changing their requirements for folks as they come in the door. Certain skill sets can 
be grown.'
Mel Hennigan

Companies and educational institutions—or both—will need to better train and develop employees. Gone are the days when someone who was hired from a specific educational program met a company's needs for years. The focus is turning to lifelong learning and employees who can grow to meet the marketplace's shifting needs.

Focus on Skills and Learning

To address future shortages, hiring managers should look now for adaptable candidates with strong foundational skills such as critical thinking, verbal and written communications, collaboration, and the ability to lead their peers in small workgroups or pods. That's critical given that about 9 percent of future jobs don't exist today, according to McKinsey.

One of those new positions is likely to be a "product incubation manager," according to Scott Snyder, a partner at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles and co-author of Goliath's Revenge: How Established Companies Turn the Tables on Digital Disruptors (Wiley, 2019). He says companies should create a two-speed organizational model that allows for the current business to run alongside a research and development arm that's allowed to take risks. The product incubation manager will toggle between the two.

"What companies fail to do is build a bridge [from R&D] to tether back to the core business," Snyder says. "Businesses are getting wiser now, and they see a need for venture leader and product incubation managers who can act on both sides and translate innovations back into the business."

Snyder also says it's crucial that companies prepare their employees for even more changes from technology, noting that the need for digital and software skills will grow and artificial intelligence (AI) will be used in all departments.

"AI is such a fundamental shift in technology and the way of working that you constantly need someone thinking about both how AI and machine learning will disrupt our function and how we can get ahead of it in a positive way," Snyder says.

Companies are also adjusting their hiring and training practices to keep up with the times. "I'm seeing companies bring back training and development," says Mel Hennigan, vice president, people, for Symplicity Corp., a higher-education software solutions provider in Arlington, Va. "They're changing their requirements for folks as they come in the door. Certain skill sets can be grown. They're looking more for people who are adaptive, people who can solve problems."

As reinvention becomes more important, employers will value candidates who not only learn quickly but also can help co-workers gain new skills. "Finding individuals who have multiple skills, who can work well with others and communicate well, both written and verbally, is very important," says Dan Ryan, president and chief executive officer of Ryan Search in Nashville, Tenn. "People who are good collaborators, good communicators and good team players are always going to be more successful."

Project management adds value in almost every profession, as do negotiation, advising, mentoring, coaching and leadership skills, Eskenazi says. Globalization means companies will seek individuals with multiple language skills and cultural awareness.

Technical and problem-solving expertise will become increasingly important as computers, AI and automation continue to permeate job functions. Telemedicine, for instance, allows doctors and registered nurses (RNs) to connect with patients across a distance, yet these health care professionals must also be comfortable troubleshooting a software issue or rebooting a device.

"It's critical thinking that's required," says Jeremy Tolley, SHRM-SCP, chief people officer for CareHere LLC, a Brentwood, Tenn.-based manager of workplace health centers. "It's very difficult to train these things. You can't come here and be successful out of the gate if you just know nursing; you have to know computer science, a bit of business, client relations."

AI-assisted health care technician
Employees with nursing or related experience will use AI technology and remote access to doctors to examine, diagnose and treat patients in their homes and in medical centers.

Chief purpose planner

Having a broad global purpose beyond just providing goods and services has become the new way companies differentiate themselves. A planner will help shape and promote that purpose to customers, clients, employees and the public using all social channels. 

Cybercalamity forecaster

Cyberthreats and computer crimes have grown exponentially. A forecaster will work with a team of experts to develop statistical models to determine when an attack might happen and how to avert it.

Cybercity analyst

Most municipal services, such as providing power, dispatching ambulances and collecting garbage, will be administered using data from sensors blanketing the city. An analyst will ensure that all the technical equipment functions properly and will carry out necessary repairs when systems are broken, faulty or hacked.
Flying-car developer

The race to create the next high-end toy for the uber-wealthy is engulfing Silicon Valley. A developer will utilize skills in areas including engineering, software development and aeronautics to turn fantasy into reality. 

Genetic-diversity officer

An integrated workforce must now include those who have been genetically enhanced (whether during gestation or later in life) and those who have not. These officers will develop inclusion programs and measure their success while acting as company thought leaders in this area.

Highway controller

Autonomous vehicles and drones may one day overrun cities. A controller will monitor, regulate, plan and manipulate road and air space to ensure traffic moves safely and smoothly.

Juvenile cybercrime rehabilitation counselor

Some digitally savvy youths are using their skills to engage in illegal activities, but these same skills can help legitimate businesses. Counselors in this role will help young offenders understand how their talents can help them pursue lawful employment.

Personal memory curator

People are living longer than ever before, though some experience diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Curators will help reduce memory-loss-induced anxiety by using images, sounds, physical space and other sensations. 

Virtual-identity defender

It’s increasingly easier to fake videos in ways that range from amusing to apocalyptic. Individuals in this role will help create authenticatable digital watermarks that can be used to differentiate someone’s true words and actions from the phonies.

Investing in Training 

Employers are already adapting to the shortage of qualified workers by spending more on training and development because they can't afford to dismiss otherwise suitable candidates who lack a specific skill.

CareHere increasingly will pay for certifications or training to close a skill gap for an in-demand job, Tolley says. For example, the company recently took over an existing facility and wanted to continue to employ some of the licensed practical nurses, though it needed them to become registered nurses. So CareHere offered to pay for their RN training, which cost $13,600 per person for tuition, books and certification fees. "It meant a big commitment on their part," Tolley says, adding that the firm adjusted the nurses' schedules so they could complete their classwork.

That's important because many of the individuals who could fill lower-paying jobs don't have the resources to pay for certification and training. Such jobs include home health aides, phlebotomists, pharmacy technicians and skilled vocational workers, such as industrial mechanics and machinists, says Steven Lindner, organizational psychologist and partner at The WorkPlace Group, a talent management consultancy in Florham Park, N.J.

"It's very difficult for people to enter those kinds of fields without any help from prospective employers in the process," he says. "You see employers partnering with universities, willing to do internships, willing to subsidize or cover the cost of certain courses. Many organizations are saying they have to look beyond the resume—we need to hire people who can do and want to do, and we need to have mentorship programs in place."

Asynchronous online training offers a terrific model for employees to fit learning around their other responsibilities and for employers to track progress and keep workers accountable. 

Already, many major corporations are ramping up their training budgets. Amazon earlier this year announced a $700 million investment in retraining one-third of the e-commerce company's 300,000 U.S.-based workers—from corporate executives to warehouse staffers—on high-tech tasks. The move is notable given that Amazon was among the first companies to experiment with drones delivering lightweight packages and warehouses where robots outnumber people.

Meanwhile, IBM's P-TECH partnership with public high schools and community colleges provides a ready source of freshly trained graduates and apprentices with degrees in applied science, computing, engineering and other STEM disciplines. While earning degrees for free through the public school system, students gain workplace experience through worksite visits, paid internships, and other connections between industry and education. From its 2011 launch at one school in Brooklyn, the program has spread to include 225 schools serving 125,000 students in 20 countries. P-TECH graduates complete their associate degrees four to five times more quickly than typical U.S. community college students, IBM reports.

To complement this initiative, IBM launched an apprenticeship program in 2017 to prepare students and existing workers alike for high-tech roles such as data scientists and software engineers in cloud computing, mainframe system administration for technologies like blockchain, and cybersecurity. IBM projects hiring nearly 500 apprentices per year through the program over the next five years.

HNTB, a Kansas City, Mo.-based infrastructure design firm, offers a generous tuition reimbursement plan, up to $10,000 per calendar year, according to Ashley Inman, SHRM-SCP, an HR manager. However, Inman notes that it's only a small part of the firm's education program, adding that 70 percent of learning occurs on the job while only 10 percent happens in a classroom. The rest comes through social relationships and mentoring.

Inman says the priority is still "teaching people how to be adaptable and how to get along with people."

Finding Creative Solutions

Companies must also find innovative solutions to fill needed roles, whether through deft staffing and scheduling, being more open to nontraditional candidates, or leveraging technology to extend a single employee's impact.

For instance, instead of two RNs at a site, CareHere might use one licensed practical nurse and an experienced occupational nurse, who specializes in employee health care, making sure to overlap schedules in ways that align with the scope of practice. Or one RN might travel to several locations to perform duties that licensed practical nurses or medical assistants at those sites aren't allowed to do.

AI can also enhance the reach of health care workers. For example, the typical radiologist has 29 different tasks to complete, Reynolds says. But when machine learning takes over one of those duties—such as reading X-rays—that boosts the radiologist's productivity. "We see in health care a tremendous opportunity for AI to be complementing and enhancing the work of so many middle-skilled workers," she says. "We have too few specialized doctors, and we can use technology to spread out and enhance that work."

A team of MIT students assessed the triage structure on the OB-GYN floor of a Boston hospital and figured out an opportunity for AI to suggest a limited set of options based on its analysis of similar patients' outcomes. This way, nurses can choose from those options rather than starting from square one. "We see more cases of complementing workers rather than substituting one for one," Reynolds says.

'Finding individuals who have multiple skills, who can work well with others and communicate well, both written and verbally, is very important.'
Dan Ryan

Employers should also look at nontraditional sources of candidates and contract workers for full-time and part-time roles that are especially hard to fill, such as environmental cleanup and personal service jobs in health care. 

"We're running out of perfect people," Inman says, noting that 1 in 3 American adults—about 70 million people—have a criminal record.

Indeed, a 2018 survey by SHRM and the Charles Koch Institute found that employers are already considering people with criminal records and seeing positive results. Two-thirds of managers and three-fourths of HR professionals have hired candidates with a misdemeanor record or substance-related felony conviction, such as driving under the influence.

The issue carries special weight given that hiring decisions based on an applicant's criminal record could cause disparate harm to people of color. And, the uneven legalization of marijuana across the U.S. blurs the line, since what's illegal in one state may be copasetic in a neighboring one, Ryan notes. Some employers have even stopped drug testing to avoid confronting the issue, he adds.

Managers should decide whether to hire candidates with criminal records on a case-by-case basis, Ryan says, rather than having a blanket prohibition. Nearly 600 corporate sponsors have signed the SHRM pledge committing to give opportunities to qualified candidates with criminal records.

"Every situation is unique," Ryan says. "You need to look at the nature of their conviction and the nature of the work they're going into. People can rehabilitate. If an individual shows progress over time, I think giving them another opportunity is an important thing to do."

Finally, companies should look for ways to add needed talent to projects or teams from the increasing number of individuals hanging out a shingle as contract workers, whether as a full-time business or a side hustle. 

"We're going to have more of an economy of solopreneurs," Ryan says. "If you can find ways to only buy what you need when you need it, versus having a sunk cost on a regular basis, that's where the real entree can be."

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a journalist, author and speaker based in the Washington, D.C., area.