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Your Future Workforce Is Not Still in High School

By Mary Lloyd

When the economy finally bounces back, the notion that you can hire entry level workers and wait while they learn the ropes won't be with it. At least not if you want to stay competitive.

Hiring workers fresh out of school and training them the way you want them trained has been the primary workforce development strategy for more than a century. But as we learn to compete in the global marketplace, maintaining the same work force on an ongoing basis is going to become a major liability. And waiting for new talent to get up to speed could cost you significant market erosion.

The reality of this evolution has been acknowledged by human resource strategists and futurists more and more of late. The most recent is Carleen MacKay who released her Fearless Forecasts for 2011 a few days ago. She included this assessment of the labor situation:

Temporary payrolls increased for virtually all of 2010 and part-time opportunities surged in 2010. When individuals are not needed full-time, they will not be hired full-time from this point forward.

That may seem like a yawner to you, but you might want to take a closer look. If you don't keep a new hire on staff all the time, how are you going to get them up to speed? And if you do keep them on-board, are you getting the best bang for your labor buck with that approach?

The times they are a changin'.

Savvy work force planners are already thinking in terms of temp agency support, contingency workers, and a flexible labor pool. And the really smart ones are looking at the fully developed talent that's on the other end of the spectrum from "new kids." If you're going thrive with a flexible workforce, it will be because your workers already know what they're doing and do it well the minute they step back onto the job. That means you'd be wise to look at the retired and about-to-be-retired when you hunt for talent.

A study of boomers done in 2005-before the financial meltdown-found that the vast majority of them wanted to continue to work after they retired. Forty-two percent want to cycle in and out of work. Hmmm….do we have a match here?

But how do you find the right talent from this group?

First, be sure you know what you're about to lose when any of your own employees start talking retirement. How much knowledge is at stake? What kind of business relationships are going to go away? What's that going to do to your bottom line? If the volume is substantial, you may want to look at creating a special program for getting these people to continue to work on a flexible basis. You might be farther ahead having them carry a three-quarter or even half-time workload than hiring "cheap" entry level replacements and then spending resources training them.

Even if you've found a way to keep your own experienced employees for a good many years yet, be on the lookout for superstars who've left the workforce from other companies. Outstanding workers who lost jobs when decent companies went bankrupt or folded a division or subsidiary are an excellent find. Maybe you'll discover that hidden gem at an association meeting. Perhaps that person will surface by commenting on a relevant blog that you've been following. When you see good established talent, think "How can we attract this?" Many are interested in the same thing you want to achieve-doing the work they're so good at, but not all day every day all year long.

Maybe working with a temp agency is the right strategy-much as that takes cash. But you might be able to work with the appropriate association or labor union instead to create pilot programs with innovative work arrangements for this kind of employee. This stuff will be commonplace eventually, but if you get in on the front end, you get the best of the best because you were the first one to notice and ask if they're interested.

Expecting business to resume exactly as it was functioning once we move beyond this recession is unrealistic. The easy, everyday, read-it-from-the-procedures manual stuff that new hires can do will be outsourced to foreign shores or just plain automated more and more by those who want to thrive. To get a competitive advantage, start to stockpile talent that's already polished and capable of dealing with the toughest problems-talent that doesn't need or want to work a conventional fulltime job. Then use it when you need it. That enviable collection of competence will keep you miles ahead of your competition-no matter how elaborate their customer service function is in Mumbai.