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What if they threw a war and nobody came?

Posted by Colin Kingsbury

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Sep 6, 2006 9:48:00 AM

You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you
--Leon Trotsky

Amitai Givertz continues to do what he does best, which is to saunter through the halls, rolling a flash-bang grenade into each room he passes to see who comes running out. The present discussion began with my contention that the talent war may not be what it seems in response to John Sumser's restatement of the conventional wisdom.

The basic contention of the Talent War prognosis is that we are set to experience a significant shortfall in the supply of qualified employees over the next ten years.

The usual justification for this is simple demographics: there are roughly 25% more people aged 45 today than 35. (Source: US Census.

The problem with this is that this analysis ignores virtually every other meaningful variable in the system.

The Population is Not Shrinking
In terms of demographic trends over the next 10, 20, and 50 years the US will likely look more like India and China than Britain or Germany. Our population is growing and median age is staying relatively stable at the mid-late 30s.

The Demographic Gap is Not Permanent
While there are roughly 25% fewer 35-year-olds today than 45-year-olds, there are plenty of 25-year-olds, 20-year-olds, and 15-year olds coming up behind them. The age imbalance is a temporary situation.

Retirement Age is Rising
Pace John and Amitai, an increase in the retirement age may be a "one-shot fix" but we only need one shot--see the previous point to understand why. If retirement age goes up by 5-10 years over the next decade, the Gen-X demographic gap could be rendered almost entirely meaningless.

Demand for Labor is Not Static
Technology will dramatically change the demand for various types of skills. I wrote about this six months ago and maintain that this is the wildcard that could throw all the predictions into the trash can. "Technology" in this case also includes business process innovation, where companies simply figure out more efficient ways to deploy and use the people they already have.

Present Conditions Do Not Imply Long-Term Trends
Amitai writes,
"Ask anyone who is recruiting nurses, truck drivers, salespeople, scientists, construction superintendents, police officers and what have you. They will tell you if there is a war for talent..."
To which I could just as soon reply, ask anyone who is hiring finance professionals, lawyers, airline pilots, or professors of English, how many resumes they get for their open positions.

There is no "job market" the way there is an "oil market." There is a "market for nurses in Boston" and a "market for IT admins in Houston" and a million other local and specialized categories of varying size and degree. At any given point you can find evidence of shortages and surpluses depending on where you look. Shortages however have a way of ultimately correcting themselves. Nursing school enrollments have been increasing steadily for years now, and would be growing faster if there were more teachers and classrooms available. The fact that it is quite difficult to hire a good nurse today does not mean it will be difficult in five or ten years. BothVolkswagen and DARPA have built robotically-driven cars that work quite well; I suspect that nearly every person who will drive a long-haul freight truck for a living has been born already and may well be old enough to drink.