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August 23, 2001
Get Ready For the Great Labor Shortage
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If government predictions prove true, the layoff binge of today may be followed by one of the nation's most severe labor shortages, brought on by the retirement of baby boomers, The New York Times reports.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projected in 1999 that the gap between the number of jobs available and the number of people to fill them would grow to 6 million in 2008, the Times notes.

And things could get much worse from there. The shortage will peak from 2015 to 2025, when the bulk of workers born between1946 and 1964, as many as 60 million, reach retirement age.

Among the occupations expected to suffer: those with large numbers of older workers, like construction inspection and teaching in secondary schools, and fields creating jobs at a fast pace, like computer engineering.

The Times notes that previous predictions about the labor force have been thrown off by unexpected developments, like the women's movement, the Internet, and wars. But experts, it adds, say the coming demographic shift is sure to have some impact.

"As the baby boomers retire, we'll be losing the head of the proverbial python that tried to swallow the elephant," said Ross C. DeVol, director of regional and demographic studies at the Milken Institute, an economic research group in Santa Monica, Calif.

"And that will have ramifications on the diversity of the work force. There will be more women and minorities in the work force, and older Americans deciding to work longer."

For workers, experts say, the imbalance means opportunities in fields like engineering or health care, where the shortages will be the most acute. For companies, the shortages will mean sending more jobs overseas and turning to immigrants to do the work Americans cannot or will not do.

Already, the Times observes, such trends are under way.

"Finding qualified workers remains a top economic development priority, even during this downturn," said Shepard Nevel, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Workforce Development in Denver.

In Baltimore, economic development officials are worried, because a decade from now the city and surrounding region are expected to have 108,000 fewer people aged 25 to 44.

Government officials, executives, and philanthropists recently financed a series of focus groups nationwide to find out exactly what the baby boomers' children want in a job. The aim is to attract companies that have jobs that will appeal to this group.

Among other things, companies will have to grapple with changes in the work force structure, the Times learned from Ronald E. Bird, chief economist for the Employment Policy Foundation, a business- oriented research group based in Washington.

Thirty years ago, Bird said, the labor market was shaped like a pyramid topped by corporate executives and other professionals (24 percent of the work force). In the middle were the skilled crafts workers, clerks and administrators (36 percent). The remaining 40 percent, including unskilled laborers, made up the bottom. But that pyramid has been shifting, with the top and the middle making up 71 percent of jobs now and projected to make up 77 percent by 2031.

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