Solving the looming labor crisis: a growing number of retirees, declining fertility rates, and a labor force that simply does not possess the right skills to meet employers' needs are leading to shortages of workers for many positions.

Author:Challenger, John A.

THE LABOR SHORTAGES of the late 1990s seem so distant now, particularly for the thousands of laidoff technology workers, many of whom went for a year or more without a job. Some, in fact, still are jobless.

The bust, recession, and rise in unemployment that followed seemed to have erased all memory of these labor shortages and, worse yet, they have made people forget that such shortages are expected to return at a level that will make the late 1990s seem like a day at the beach. It will not be long before corporations will be compelled to open and operate their own schools in order to cultivate workers. We are not talking about corporate schools where school districts are managed by private educational companies, which are already becoming common in certain parts of the country. We are talking about the Microsoft Institute of Technology and the Citibank Center for Education, where kids will begin in kindergarten and continue through the acquisition of a degree.

Along with general subjects like history and literature, students will be taught the specific math, science, and computer skills needed by the employer-educator. Additionally, school may become a year-round activity so that children can catch up with corporations' needs.

Labor shortages may become so severe that retirement as we know it will vanish. The age at which people can begin collecting full Social Security benefits will move from its current level of 65 up to 75 in order to oblige older employees to stay in the workforce as long as they can.

Companies suffering from labor shortages may become the leading proponents for the advancement of human cloning in order to lower their dependence on reproductive trends. They may also lead the way in the growth of artificial intelligence as an alternative to human workers.

If you mention impending labor shortages and their possible results to the average person on the street, he or she would likely give you a look of disbelief, particularly if that individual is headed to the unemployment office. The person probably would be thinking, "How can there be worries about labor shortages when so many qualified workers--like myself--are sitting here jobless for months?"

The problem is, the average person on the street is only concerned with now. He or she is not looking five to 10 years down the road. An even bigger problem is that neither are most of the nation's employers. The farthest ahead most companies ever look is perhaps one or two quarters.

However, labor shortages are imminent. In fact, severe ones are likely to return within 10 years. Some companies may begin feeling the pinch within 24 to 48 months. Certain industries, like health care, are already suffering badly. Here are some of the most-alarming numbers:

* Government estimates that, in less than seven years, there will be nearly 168,000,000 jobs in the U.S. economy, but only about 158,000,000 people in the labor market to fill them--a shorffall of 10,000,000 workers.

* Census projections show that the number of retirement-age Americans--65 and older--will grow at a much faster rate than the age groups that will be needed to replace them.

* Between 2005 and 2015, those 65 and older are expected to increase 26%. Meanwhile, the population of 40- to 54-year-olds will shrink by five percent. Moreover, there is not much relief behind them. The number of Americans 25 to 39 will grow by a mere six percent between those years.

* A study by the Aspen Institute shows that the native-born workforce aged 25 to 54, which businesses have come to rely upon to fuel their expansions, surged 44% between 1980 and 2000. Over the next 20 years, between 2000 and 2020, the rate is expected to be zero.

* Two-thirds of hospitals nationwide are experiencing labor shortages, up from 55% in 2001. The greatest need is for registered nurses, but half of the hospitals surveyed said they also have long-term vacancies of six months or more in radiology and pharmacy.

* The shortage of health care workers is expected to worsen in the years to come. Despite an eight percent jump in enrollments in undergraduate nursing programs, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing says the number in the educational pipeline is still insufficient to meet the projected demand for 1,000,000 new nurses over the next 10 years.

* Labor shortages also are taking hold in home building, which has been surprisingly resilient to the economic downturn. The National Association of Home Builders...

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