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BLS Report Get Ready for a Smaller, More Diverse Workforce

December 13, 2007
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Anthony Olvera’s career prospects are promising. He is young, Hispanic and has five years of nursing experience—characteristics that bode well in an environment where the workforce is aging rapidly, there’s a dearth of skilled talent and diversity is on the rise.

Olvera’s demographics are a virtual mirror of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest workforce projections and predictions through 2016. The Hispanic workforce will climb by 30 percent by that year, while nurses make up the largest increase of any occupational group tracked by the BLS.

Overall, the civilian labor force will increase by 12.8 million, bringing the number of workers to 164.2 million by the middle of the next decade. While the figure appears to be a healthy increase, longtime HR executives may recall that 17.5 million workers entered the labor force between 1996 and 2006.

“It’s clear that the workforce growth rate is decelerating,” says Mitra Toossi, an economist at the BLS in Washington. Indeed, the current rate of growth is 8.5 percent, significantly less than the 13.1 percent rise in the previous decade.

What’s more, the portion of the population that is actively employed or seeking employment—known as the labor force participation rate—is declining and is expected to level off at 65.5 percent by 2016, Toossi notes. By comparison, workforce participation was at 67.1 percent in 1997.

Toossi attributes this to several factors, including an aging population.

“The reality is that as workers get older, they begin to drop out of the labor force,” Toossi says. “When that happens, participation rates take a hit.”

The number of workers 55 and older is expected to reach about 23 million in less than a decade. This represents a growth rate of 46.7 percent, which is almost 5.5 times the projections for the overall labor force.

Yet employers shouldn’t worry about an overnight exodus of workers, says Bob Morison, director of research at the BSG Concours Group, a consultancy based in Kingwood, Texas. Many baby boomers—people born between 1946 and 1964—intend to remain active, but it will be on their terms. In fact, some three-quarters of baby boomers say they plan to work at least part time in their retirement years, Morison says.

Employers also face a declining number of workers between the ages of 16 and 24. That segment of the labor force will fall about 2 percent to 18.8 percent by 2016. Yet the dwindling rate of young workers is not entirely bad news, Toossi says.

“Many of these young individuals are not working because they are busy pursuing an education,” she notes.

The shortages still present a challenge because there will be fewer people handling more work. Brian Krueger, president of CollegeGrad.com, an online job search service for college students and recent grads, says campus visits and job fairs won’t do the trick.

He stresses the importance of offering Gen Yers professional development opportunities. Rotational programs and delineated career paths also go a long way in building employer brand, attracting young talent and bolstering retention rates, Krueger notes.

The BLS also projects a more diverse workforce driven by tremendous population growth among Hispanics. This segment of the labor force will reach almost 27 million by 2016—a 30 percent increase over 2006.

It’s also a relatively young workforce, meaning companies will face unique challenges, experts note.

“Many Hispanics are at the early stage in their careers,” says Louis DeSipio, associate professor of Chicano and Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. “Employers will have to realize the important role that education and training will play in preparing this group of individuals.”

Employee development should be a top priority, Toossi says. Skilled talent from all walks of life will be highly coveted through 2016 and beyond, she explains. Service-oriented professions will have the most job openings in the next decade, from retail salespeople to accountants and auditors.

Yet nurses will be among the most sought-after employees. Some 587,000 new jobs will be added for registered nurses between 2006 and 2016, representing the largest increase of any occupational group tracked by the BLS. There will be almost 3.1 million total jobs for RNs by 2016.

Olvera, an RN in a dermatologist’s office in Los Angeles, says he entered the profession on a lark five years ago and will remain in the field because of a desire to help people and the job security offered by a career in nursing.

“I love nursing,” he says. “I would never consider leaving it.”

Employers will have to work hard to hold on to skilled talent like Olvera, says Cheryl Peterson, senior policy analyst for the American Nurses Association in Silver Spring, Maryland.

She recommends several measures, including competitive salaries and pension benefits, to retain workers.

“Nurse turnover is particularly painful for employers,” Peterson says. “Once one leaves, it is difficult to find a replacement because there just aren’t enough trained individuals out there.”

—Gina Ruiz

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