Worldwide Demographic Crossroad Nears
by Hank Lindborg
In the hopeful days following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, a colleague of mine, who is an expert in community development and school design, was invited to tour a Moscow library dedicated to books about the future.
Obsessed by planning and utopian dreams, the Soviets had amassed a trove of visionary writing from around the world. As has happened to many of us whose childhoods were filled with promises of space-age technology, my friend was touched by the irony of contrast between ideal futures and social reality.
At a distance, the future always seemed bright. Now it’s here and quite different from what we imagined.
The rapidity of change, once merely a cliché, is now a painful reality, and our horizons are closer. Take, for example, The 2010 Meltdown: Solving the Impending Jobs Crisis,1 the latest book by Edward E. Gordon, one of our most cogent experts on work and training.
We’re only four years away from Gordon’s future—the crossroad at which a dramatic demographic shift worldwide will put a new premium on talent. Across the globe, societies are aging, and large numbers of skilled persons are departing the workforce. This will present enormous consequences that will go beyond what we may have assumed were just more opportunities for younger workers.
In his book and in a recent interview with me, Gordon asserts—with some convincing evidence—that soon the United States will not be able to meet its requirements for broadly educated, technically trained professionals to maintain our standard of living and competitive innovation.
Current strategies of outsourcing or obtaining visas for foreign workers, he says, won’t yield good results long-term. Why? Because India and China, as well as other developing nations, will suffer similar shortages. Their physical and educational infrastructures are inadequate to sustain their current rates of growth.
Though high wage, low skill jobs may be gone forever from the United States, opportunities for high wage, high skill jobs—and for improved quality of life—will increase with our ability to educate and to innovate.
I asked Gordon for some strategies on preparing for the coming “meltdown.” He offered some for individuals, organizations and communities.
Individuals. At all levels, we need to develop ongoing awareness of trends in technology. Where are new developments in software, hardware and other products coming from? How are new technologies from outside the United States being adapted for innovation? What skills are required to work in developing fields?
Two-year degrees may be the answer in some fields, and because the half-life of technical knowledge is ever shortening, skills require continual updating. Formal evidences of training—continuing education units and certifications—will be valuable only if they are based on real learning.
Organizations. Corporations and professional societies need to take skills development seriously. Gordon decries what he sees as serious lapses in corporate commitment to substantive training. Putting some courses online without serious consideration of curriculum or learners’ needs is no solution.
One of Gordon’s central tenets is that only those who understand competitive advantage is based on human capital will prosper long-term. His website (www.imperialcorp.com) even includes a free tool to calculate training return on investment.
Gordon expects in-house training to make a comeback after 2010. That, in itself, may offer career opportunities for those whose passions are teaching and learning. In fact, he says, “The best opportunities will come to those who want to remain smart workers.”
Communities. The foundation for U.S. competitive advantage is the community. In The 2010 Meltdown,2 Gordon provides rich examples of how collaborative efforts have paid off in building the economies of areas struck by job loss.
These efforts are especially important because globalism is not about to disappear—we have to compete with other nations for business. Corporations will locate where there are highly trained, well-educated workers.
If your community denies resources to education, if its approach to general and technical education, K-12 and beyond, is defensive and reactive, you should get involved in reform efforts. If attitudes and systems can’t be changed, you should consider moving because the community is in peril.
Who Will Benefit?
So, who should take note? Anyone who wants a meaningful career. We have several generations at work now, with more of us wanting to remain in the workforce beyond traditional retirement age. Those of any age with high skill levels and the know-how to learn and transfer knowledge should have increased employment opportunities.
ASQ and its members should remain leaders and role models in demonstrating how training enhances competitive advantage. We should also leverage the work of our divisions and sections in improving the quality of education and community development.
The future is here—2010 is less than four years away.
- Edward E. Gordon, The 2010 Meltdown: Solving the Impending Jobs Crisis, Praeger, 2005.
HENRY J. LINDBORG is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and Education and Training Board.