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Workforce Planning - It's More than Just Staffing Numbers

By Mary Lloyd

Workforce planning is more than just estimating what staffing levels you're going to have in the next five, ten, or twenty years. Assuming that a full pipeline of qualified fulltime candidates is automatically going to be there when you need it is folly. That is especially true for the next twenty years-when the entire generation of baby boomers becomes old enough to retire.

We are a culture saturated with data-we can get the statistics on everything from how many people become eligible for Medicare every day to the speed of the fast ball your favorite pitcher just threw. But sometimes what the numbers are telling you isn't what you need to know.

The unemployment rate doesn't tell you how many people would like to not be working or to be working at something else-or for someone other than you. No one but you can assess when the people who work for you will actually decide to retire. And no one knows when they will quit for a job they want more. It's easy-and tempting-to let other people's numbers decide what questions to use in your workforce planning. But is that really going to give you the solid look at the challenges and opportunities that might be on your specific company horizon? A combination of statistical data and empirical assessment is a wiser choice. Ask your own questions and test the workability of your own solutions. That data will help you learn what might work down the road rather than just estimating external factors that affect your business.

Perhaps you are already aware of the "brain drain" that all those departing boomers will create. Experience doesn't come in convenient little modules you can swallow in massive gulps. It takes time. It takes a variety of work situations. It takes the adult maturation process itself. Once you've grown a veteran employee, considering that human capital to be the equivalent to a new hire in your planning is like assuming you will have wine tomorrow because you bought grapes at the grocery store today.

Your assumption may be that they will be there simply because they didn't save enough money to retire, even when they're old enough. Good luck with that. Merrill Lynch did a study in 2006 in which boomers reported that though they planned to work in retirement, they wanted to do something different. In a study Merrill Lynch did a year earlier, 42% of the boomers surveyed said they preferred to cycle in and out of work as part of their retirement years. Does you workforce planning take heed of either of these likelihoods?

It's tempting to blow off "the boomers" simply because they've gotten so much press for so long. "They always get their way." "They're selfish." "They need to get out of the way so younger workers can advance." Say what you will, there is one incontrovertible fact that you need to accept: the baby boom is the largest generation is history and they are followed by a generation which is roughly 50% of their own size.

That makes your workforce planning a lot different. You will not have the nice neat "one in, one out" of employment progression that happened while the baby boom was in the middle of their career years. To plan well, you're going to have to become far more specific in the talent you need and in the level of experience that must be sustained to have a viable work force. And you are going to have to come up with new strategies for attracting it and retaining it. This is not homage to the baby boom. This is the reality of workforce demographics.

Your questions need to be more sophisticated than "if we anticipate x % growth, how many workers do we need on the payroll at that point?" Using a prestigious source for that growth rate doesn't improve the prognostication. Figuring out what you will need in tiers of experience might.

So ask these questions in addition to "what is the economic data telling us?"

  • Where and how are we vulnerable on specific skills, trades, and knowledge sets?
  • How much of the experience we have now is likely to still be here at specific points in our future?
  • What are the sources of that talent outside the company likely to be at that point in time?
  • What are our options for attracting/retaining that talent?

When you do that kind of discovery process, an amazing thing comes into focus. Getting those gray hairs out of the picture isn't so bright after all. There's a whole lot of talent heading for that murky area called "retired" that might be essential. Innovation to learn how to best tap that labor pool now can propel you ahead of the competition once the "war for talent" heats up again. In addition to "what the numbers say," you need to experiment. What you learn is just as essential as "the numbers" from all those venerable sources.