Baby boomers are soon reaching retirement and preparing to leave the workforce. This dissipating pool of skills could be devastating to industry in B.C. due to the recent skilled worker shortage in the province. It is almost too late, but the question needs to be asked, will their exit mean a bust for our economy?

Almost too late in the game, the reality of the fast-disappearing pool of workers is finally entering the consciousness of business operators. The lack of available skilled labour is the primary concern of those running businesses, according to surveys by the World Chambers Network and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Even in the exploding small-business sector, where B.C. is growing faster than anywhere else in Canada, lack of workers presents the biggest challenge to growth. The most immediate concern is the lack of skilled trades workers and supervisors. Such people are absolutely vital to the resource, construction and transportation sectors that are the major contributors to the booming growth B.C. is enjoying and will continue to experience throughout the rest of this decade.

We are seeing a pattern that reminds me of a Tim Hortons doughnut. One half of the doughnut represents the skilled, experienced and aging baby boomers already starting to leave the mines, construction sites and other workplaces. On the other side of the doughnut are the relatively few new, young workers that so many companies and industries are now desperately trying to attract, train and retain. In the middle—where we should be seeing many workers with skills and some experience looking forward to the second half of their careers—we see a big, gaping hole.

Businesses should have launched strategies to address the looming loss of talent 10 or 20 years ago. The demographics of the baby boomers have been well known since that generation appeared on the scene in the 20 years following the Second World War. The birth rate in Canada and B.C. has been below the replacement level since the mid-1960s. In the last quarter of 2005, the number of deaths exceeded births in this country by 10,000. Population growth only remained positive due to immigration and, in B.C., to strong inter-provincial in-migration.

Baby boomers are reaching retirement age and there are very few people in the generations that follow them. In other words, for the first time since the Second World War, we are looking at having more work than workers. What’s surprising is that everybody knew what was coming but almost no one did anything about it. Businesses collectively have failed to do their succession planning. There is no cohort of trained, experienced, mid-level workers ready to fill the shoes of those stepping out of the workplace door. Now we must desperately play catch-up because the future of our companies and our economy is at risk. We can’t redo the past, so what should we be doing now?

Laws of attraction
First, do everything possible to recruit, upgrade and keep new workers. For this, the HR department becomes as, or even more, important than the finance department in keeping your company afloat. Remember that in today’s incredibly tight labour market you will have lots of competition for human capital, both locally and globally, and you may have to “make” rather than “buy” the skills you need.

Second, consider all possible pools of labour, including non-traditional workers. If your firm’s jobs are not attractive to women, new Canadians and other non-traditional groups, what can you do to make them so? Third, look at substitutes for labour such as machinery and equipment or outsourcing. The first may reduce the number of workers you need, but could well increase the skill levels. The latter should be undertaken only as part of a comprehensive strategic plan to make sure you are not jeopardizing the operation of your business.

Finally, consider hanging onto those baby boomers for as long as possible. Work with your employees and unions on retirement and pension issues. Offer older workers part-time, part-year, contract and consulting work to keep their contributions. Be flexible. The debate is over—the reality is here: In B.C. right now, lack of human capital is the biggest problem for our businesses—even bigger than lack of financial capital. Let’s get working on it.