Take This Job And Customize It


How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent

By Ken Dychtwald, Tamara J. Erickson, and Robert Morison

Harvard Business School -- 269pp -- $29.95

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Editor's Review

Star Rating

The Good A compelling look at demographic trends that could affect every corner of U.S. business.

The Bad How-to material on reconfiguring work is less insightful than the rest of the book.

The Bottom Line A smart argument about tailoring work to different groups' needs.

Employers love young workers. They don't eat up health-care dollars. They're seen as energetic and malleable. And they're cheap to hire. No wonder companies seem so happy to wave goodbye to pricey old-timers, encouraging their exit through buyout packages and early retirement. But author Ken Dychtwald, along with management consultants Tamara J. Erickson and Robert Morison, argues that such thinking could soon imperil American business. The stereotypes of the young, eager worker and burned-out veteran, they believe, are utterly wrong. Moreover, by the end of the decade, companies could be scrambling to hold on to mature employees and be forced to rethink how to deal with every age group.

That's the premise of Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent, a compelling book that outlines trends that could affect every corner of U.S. business. Dychtwald, a well-known pundit who usually writes upbeat works like Age Wave on how baby boomers will redefine aging, takes a more complex view of demographic trends here. He and his co-authors say that, in the wake of declining birth rates and with the growing evidence of the worth of older workers, companies should radically change how they view experienced talent. The issue isn't just a shortage of bodies but a potential loss of veterans' skills.

Luckily, many older employees don't really want to rush out the door. In their research, the authors found that mature folks often have higher levels of job satisfaction, productivity, loyalty, and enthusiasm than do their younger colleagues. Moreover, seasoned workers are less likely to job-hop, get torn apart by issues of work-life balance, engage in egocentric battles with colleagues, or suffer from burnout. What they do want, however, is meaningful work, recognition of experience, and a flexibility that will allow them to reduce or alter responsibilities at the sunset of their careers.

The most intriguing part of Workforce Crisis considers how companies should tailor the workplace to the needs of each of three cohorts: the over-55 crowd, the time-squeezed midcareer employees, and the fickle under-34 group. Among other things, the authors share the findings of a survey of 7,700 employees they asked Harris Interactive (HPOL ) to conduct. They also look at how companies such as CVS (CVS ), JetBlue Airways (JBLU ), IBM (IBM ), and Newell Rubbermaid (NWL ) manage to woo and retain different age groups. The book ends with a useful but less insightful section on the mechanics of assembling work arrangements, training, and benefits to fit peoples' needs during different life stages.

The discussion of older workers covers terrain Dychtwald has explored in previous books, such as the end of traditional retirement and the potential for such people to launch new careers. Some may now be open to global assignments that they once shunned as a result of family responsibilities. Others may blossom in mentoring or training jobs that tap their skills without requiring a full-time commitment.

Then there are the midcareer workers: Management often doesn't fret too much about the needs of those between the ages of 35 and 54. That shouldn't be the case, since some in this group may feel growing frustration as their careers stall and they fail to move up into senior management. Moreover, such workers may feel sandwiched between obligations to kids and aging parents, while others may be trying to reenter the workforce after taking time off to raise children. Some, immersed in a midlife crisis, feel hungry for change. Whatever the reason, employees in this group often value flexibility and aid in meeting obligations. Fresh assignments and training can reinvigorate their careers. They may crave more leadership opportunities, long sabbaticals, or both.

Finally come the younger employees, with yet another set of concerns. In the authors' survey, this group emerged as the least satisfied and least engaged. They want respect, independence, self-defined work schedules, and challenging duties with sufficient compensation in pay or time off. Employers who want to keep them have to build an engaging, friendly, and high-performance environment. Empower young staffers, expose them to different opportunities, and -- perhaps most important -- stay in touch with alumni and make it easy for them to return if they leave to try out other jobs, the authors advise.

In the end, Workforce Crisis is less an analysis of an impending labor calamity than a smart argument about the benefits of customizing work to the needs of different groups. With continued immigration and delayed retirement, the talent shortage may never become a nationwide disaster. But companies that make efforts to retain people at every life stage are likely to snatch the top talent in any market.

By Diane Brady

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