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Jobs Everywhere, and No People to Fill Them

Dec. 13, 2017
A gap of 20 million workers means it is imperative now for manufacturers to reach far beyond their traditional recruiting efforts if they want to survive. 

I keep reading about how we need to create more jobs in order to boost our economy. These stories miss the point that jobs are not the issue – workers are. We are missing 20 million people in the current workforce and will need every available worker – and more – to keep the economy growing. Filling this Body Gap means finding workers in non-traditional places. Any organization looking to grow in the future will need to engage these new sources.

The number of available jobs is no longer the issue holding back growth. Workers are. We’ve done a good job addressing the Skills Gap – continuing to align resources to train and engage available people. Unfortunately, all that good work will not be enough as that Skills Gap morphs into a Body Gap. We need more people to fill open jobs and grow our economy. There are more open opportunities than any time since the Great Recession. In my state of Wisconsin, the unemployment rate is at 4.1% and Madison’s is a microscopic 2.6% – both numbers well below full employment rates. There are over 87,000 jobs open in Wisconsin – and over 5 million in the entire U.S.

These numbers foretell the front edge of what I call the  “Body Gap,” and demographic trends will make the situation even worse. The Boomers are retiring, revealing the 20 million worker shortfall in Generation X. This is not just a Wisconsin or Midwest problem. The entire developed world faces the same issue: not enough workers. In this environment, traditional workforce efforts face an uphill battle because everyone needs more people. 

This means we will need to find workers in non-traditional places, requiring new efforts to tap the disabled, discouraged, and chronically unemployed. These efforts require coordinated and aligned efforts from business, government, education, and community organizations in order to bring these people into the workforce. Traditional training, recruiting, and outreach approaches will not be enough to find all the workers we need. This will not be easy and requires new thinking and new approaches. Even with these new approaches, maintaining our present workforce will be a struggle.

For Wisconsin – even with a flat workforce – we will need productivity growth of 30% or more to maintain our growth. We haven’t seen productivity improvement rates like that since World War II!

It’s tough to mobilize the correct resources because the Body Gap looks like the Skills Gap, but the solutions are very different. The Body Gap is still about connecting skilled workers with open jobs. The important difference is that there are not enough bodies for all those openings. The Skills Gap actions are all necessary – but not sufficient – to address the Body Gap. Effective action requires a comprehensive strategy encompassing the three Ts: Talent, Technology, and Techniques.

Growth depends on that comprehensive approach. Organizations must find ways to deliver more with fewer people. This means rethinking value propositions, investing in new technology, and finding new ways to fully engage the people working with you. Few organizations will find it possible to grow by simply maintaining the status quo.

For most groups, this ends up being a choice between growth or extinction. Accelerating change puts organizations at risk and new technology can transform entire industries. The Body Gap only adds more complication and pressure to the situation. Modern organizations can choose to take advantage of these changes or risk becoming irrelevant – either because the organization’s competitiveness slips or its inability to fill demand opens opportunities for others. This is certainly not a time for the timid.

I believe Wisconsin leaders will make the difficult decisions and take the complex action necessary create a brighter future. Business, education, government, and other groups aligned to address the Skills Gap. This same alignment will be needed for this larger challenge. We need everyone – and their ideas – in order to succeed.

It’s a difficult challenge, but we face a once-in-our-lifetime opportunity to lift a whole generation out of poverty. We have the capabilities and resources to make this happen. The jobs are there and we need people to fill them. It’s time to act – together – and keep our country moving ahead!

Buckley Brinkman is the Executive Director and CEO of The Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity (WCMP), which collaborates with the UW Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center (MOC) and the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP) to help Wisconsin manufacturers grow their businesses and become more profitable.

About the Author

Buckley Brinkman | Executive Director and CEO

Leading the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity since June 2011, Brinkmann has brought more than 25 years of transformational manufacturing leadership to organization, with a breadth of experience in helping companies drive growth, world-class competitiveness and performance excellence.

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