Fighting a future brain drain

Hey, Baby Boomers, did you notice what happened in July?

At some point during the month, a Boomer who shall remain nameless turned 50. With that birthday, fewer than half of all Baby Boomers are younger than 50 years of age. This is a staggering thought for a bunch of folks who used to make it a point not to trust anyone over 30.

Perhaps more significant, though, is the fact that the oldest Boomers will begin turning 60 in January. This is a statistic that promises to have major implications for our economy and our industry for years to come.

We have heard the Baby Boom generation compared to a pig that is swallowed by a python. The pig is a real challenge for the snake to digest, causing the serpent to stretch grotesquely as the porker works its way through the python's system.

Throughout their lives, Boomers have had a similar effect wherever they have gone. They represent 76 million people attempting to do approximately the same thing at about the same time.

In their early years, Boomers helped trigger a post-World War II housing boom. Soon they entered the public school system, cramming existing schools to capacity and forcing new ones to be built. A few of these schools have since closed as Boomers grew up and fewer students came along behind them to take their place.

As young adults, they created a huge need for more college classrooms, apartment complexes, and starter homes. Upon graduation, they needed jobs. No problem. Jobs generally were available, because the economy needed workers to meet the demand for appliances, furniture, cars, and the endless other products that Boomers required.

Boomers have entered their peak earning years. Today people age 50 or older control 70% of the wealth in the United States — a percentage that undoubtedly will grow as the rest of the Boomers reach the half-century mark. And they hold key positions in truck body, truck equipment, and trailer manufacturing companies throughout North America.

Now it's time for the Next Big Thing: retirement. As Boomers begin turning 60, how will that affect our industry?

At first glance, the prospect of a mass exodus from the workforce might seem staggering if we think about how difficult it is to attract and retain qualified personnel. But if a recent Merrill Lynch survey is accurate, most Boomers plan to remain working — some because they will need the money, others because they want to. Among their reasons: 67% will do so to stay mentally active, and 57% say they want to stay physically active. Additional reasons include a desire to be connected with others (cited by 48% of survey respondents), a hunger for new challenges (37%), and the need for health insurance (45%).

But can Boomers hang on without changes in the work environment? Given the physical demands of installing truck equipment and manufacturing truck bodies and trailers, will our industry be able to retain effectively its share of workers who may need or desire to remain on the job past traditional retirement age? How will this change the way shops are equipped and managed? Could making a “gray-friendly” workplace be one way to alleviate a shortage of technicians? If not, where will our industry get enough replacements? Even with Boomers on the job, we have a shortage of personnel in shops and plants today. And the age groups coming in behind the Boomers have fewer people.

What about white-collar employees? The ranks of our industry's marketing, engineering, and administrative personnel also can be expected to dwindle as the bulk of the Boomers move through their 60s. But if the Boomers in our industry are representative of the population as a whole, many of them also may choose to remain active in the industry. How will that play out?

Working relationships with white-collar employees may change as the workforce ages. For example, a young manufacturing company recently asked us for names of retired executives who could provide them with expertise and a sense of history that their start-up company has not yet acquired. Will the expertise of today's managers be sufficiently transferred before they leave? Or will there be a need for white-collar gray beards to return to service periodically as the cyclical needs of tomorrow's truck and trailer industry fluctuates?

This is not to imply a lack of confidence in the abilities of those just now entering the workforce. As always with Boomers, it is a question of their numbers. And now that most of them have qualified for membership in AARP, their presence (and absence) undoubtedly will impact the economy in general and our industry in particular.

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