Frank Pennachio

Quickly rising and about to strike, the tidal wave of demographic pressure in the United States is a formidable threat to the health of American business. Employers are already passing up opportunities to expand their businesses because they do not have and cannot find workers who can handle what is required.

The challenges are well documented, but remain daunting:

• In the U.S., someone turns 60 every 10 seconds. Yet, few have sufficient savings for retirement and must stay in the workforce longer, although they may have difficulty keeping pace with the job demands.

• Up to 75 percent of those 18-24 years old are not eligible for the military due to obesity, illiteracy, or substance abuse. Yet, jobs that once were available to workers with limited skills now require competency in reading, math, communication, and the use of computers.

• Trends show that this is the first generation to be less healthy than their parents with epidemic incidents of obesity and rising rates of adult onset diabetes in children. Yet, employers are hard pressed to meet today’s costs of health insurance and while wellness programs are widely accepted, employers continually struggle with incentivizing participation.

Although this demographic tidal wave has been stirring for some time, few employers have strategies to deal with it. Not surprising, when Wharton’s Director of Human Resources, Peter Cappelli, points out that about two-thirds of companies do no planning for workforce issues at all.

The confluence of these challenges means that there is a decreasing number of available fit, educated, trained employees with a strong work ethic. While knowing how to best attract, manage, and retain employees has always been a key component of sustaining growth and high productivity, this is the only way to grow profitably in times of scarcity.

Employers need to ask some serious questions: Are they the employer of choice in their area - the one that everyone wants to work for? Do their top employees regularly refer qualified candidates for hire? With rigorous hiring standards and high performance expectations, can they select and retain the best employees for the job? Which employees do they want to attract and retain, and how are they going to develop them?

While the parameters defining “employer of choice” will vary by industry and location, there are commonalities. Clearly, attractive salaries and wages, job security, advancement opportunities, rich benefits, flexibility, desirable perks, managers who treat their employees well, and ethical practices are all on the list.

Each year,Fortunepartners with Great Place to Work Institute® to pick the 100 Best Large Companies to Work for in America and the Society for Human Resource Management to pick the 50 Best Small and Medium Companies. Selections are made based on management’s credibility, job satisfaction, respect, fairness and camaraderie, and to a lesser degree demographic makeup, pay and benefit programs, the company’s management philosophy, methods of internal communications, opportunities, compensation practices, and diversity efforts, etc.

Taking steps, such as employee surveys, retention and exit interviews, to understand what motivates and drives employees and potential employees is key to becoming an employer of choice. For two consecutive years, Google has topped the list of large employers and while financial security and flexibility are key attractions, the “opportunity to get things done” is at the top of the list as well.

Many companies might respond, indicating they cannot afford to be among this group; but, in truth, they need to recognize that they must structure their budgets, priorities, and cultures so that they become an employer of choice. They cannot afford the alternative - it is only those employers that can be very selective and attract, retain, and motivate the best employees that will grow profitably.

An engaged employee has a vested interest in an employer’s success; creating career paths is often identified as a way to keep people interested in their jobs. While younger employees with high potential are the focus of career development opportunities, extending and redefining career paths to all employees enhances retention strategies and strengthens productivity. For example, the older technician may move on to service manager or be paired with new employees as a mentor.

Creating an environment that people want to be a part of will motivate employees and drive performance. The dramatic turnaround of the Boston Celtics from the worst team to NBA champions offers a valuable lesson. Arguably, the league’s top trio of players sacrificed their personal glory and focused on a singular goal - winning the NBA championship - and did everything they could to speed up the team’s learning curve and solidify chemistry.

Complementing this was the addition of savvy veterans who not only contributed meaningful minutes but also mentored young players to help them maximize their capabilities. The leadership of the Celtics was agile, attracting the talent they needed, fostering chemistry among young and veteran players, and focusing on a common goal.

Employers likewise need to be agile and responsive as they face the challenge of maintaining a healthy, trained, productive workforce.

Constantly threatened with a double-edged sword - younger employees entering the workforce are less healthy than previous generations and older employees are often working beyond their physical abilities to perform their jobs - employers need a strategy. While employee assistance programs and wellness programs are valuable tools, the best solution is to be the employer of choice. With ample job applicants and rigorous hiring practices, employers can hire the best and secure a lasting competitive advantage.

Publication date:08/04/2008