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What is the Silver Tsunami and How Do You Deal with It?

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the silver tsunami

People are living longer across the board. While very few will tell you this is a bad thing, it does present challenges in the world’s economies. As a large population of older people age out of the workforce, more and more employers are feeling the sting of filling vacancies. If employers are not proactive in preparing for this silver tsunami, the sting can be felt even more. If you’re unfamiliar with this term, let’s begin with a silver tsunami definition.

What Is the Silver Tsunami?

Also known as the gray tsunami, silver wave, or gray wave, the term silver tsunami is simply a way of conveying the fact that a large proportion of aging Americans will be exiting the workforce in the coming years and industries are unprepared to fill the void left behind. It specifically refers to the generation known as the baby boomers reaching retirement age. Currently, approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age every day, and the continuing trend is creating employment gaps across industries. 

These gaps are formed out of two simple factors.

One is that the generation below the boomers, Generation X, contains the smallest generation of American workers, and will not provide the numbers to fill the void left behind by those retiring. The second is that many potential replacements from the larger millennial and younger generations do not have the experience or training to fill the roles being vacated.

Without suitable replacements, droves of plumbers, electricians, and lineworkers will be retiring by the end of the decade, leaving industries woefully understaffed. In fact, the Copper Development Association estimates that over one half of the trade professionals in the US are near retirement age, yet only 3% of surveyed 18-25 year olds would consider a career in the trades. These stats indicate an impending workforce gap that will be difficult to fill, but the story does not end there.

Although trade schools have reported a 19% increase in enrollment among the construction trades and an almost 12% increase in enrollment within the mechanical trades, employment growth is projected to grow throughout the rest of the decade, even as a large percentage of workers are retiring. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates a 16% employment growth for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters between 2016 and 2026.

In addition, the silver tsunami was expected to peak around 2028, but was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many workers who were nearing retirement, chose to simply get the process rolling. This is having profound implications for workforce development.

This all points to a workforce gap that needs support from all angles. The key is to begin sooner rather than later.

Issues Surrounding the Silver Tsunami

With such a large portion of the population retiring every year, the gaps left behind can reap negative effects, such as decreased productivity, security risks and economic decline, among other things.

Industries Are Losing Experts

A large challenge posed by the impending silver tsunami is that many of the most skilled workers, with decades of tenure and accumulated knowledge, will no longer be available to train the workforce of the future. Many baby boomers worked in the same industry for decades or more. Some even worked at the same place from right out of school until retirement. With that kind of industry experience comes great knowledge that is not easy to replace. As boomers age out of the workforce, employers will have trouble developing the same expertise amongst their teams.

Tenured Employees Have Not Shared their Knowledge

In addition to losing experts, surveys have shown that many of retiring employees have not shared the knowledge necessary to fill the roles they are vacating. This is due to a number of factors. Companies often do not have enough staff to allow for regular training in addition to regular workloads. Even if they do, sometimes turnover makes this type of passing down of information impossible. No matter the cause, that lack of shared knowledge will become a challenge for companies to overcome when the silver tsunami hits those industries, and it has the potential to upturn productivity, growth and safety.

With all of these factors in place, there are opportunities to prepare. For companies that have not forecasted this silver tsunami, it is urgent to take advantage of these opportunities in order to weather the storm.

Industries that Could Suffer Most from the Silver Tsunami

While a worker shortage has negative impacts in any industry, worker shortages in our utilities, infrastructure and communications industries have the potential to impact the very things we need to live our everyday lives. 

Utilities

Modern society has become accustomed to having a constant stream of electricity, water and HVAC services pumped into homes. It is difficult to imagine life without them. When something breaks down or supplies are cut off, the expectation is that it will be fixed rapidly. With workforce gaps becoming more prevalent, interruptions without a quick fix can become more prevalent too.

Infrastructure

The aging infrastructure in the US is due for upgrades. Roads are crumbling under increased traffic and environmental stressors, and many bridges are nearing or exceeding their expected lifespan of 50-70 years. Although funding has been recognized for infrastructure projects to help fix the issues, those fixes are difficult to execute without qualified personnel to do them. The impact ranges from high mechanic bills to long detours that make transportation troublesome at best and dangerous at worst..

Communications

Aging infrastructure does not end with roads and bridges. Society, and modern economies, have become incredibly reliant upon a well-functioning communications infrastructure as well. The internet has become the foundation on which both work and social interaction rely upon. Without a competent workforce to fill the silver tsunami’s void, the foundations of these business and social structures will be difficult to maintain or expand.

Solutions to the Problem

New Training Tactics

A collection of several recent studies of silver tsunami statistics have revealed a number of things. First, while the percentage of those over 75 that are still participating in the workforce is expected to rise significantly between 2020 and 2030, the percentage of those between 16 and 24 is expected to decline. That means fewer able bodied young people participating in the workforce as more and more people eventually retire. Plus, all baby boomers will be at least 65 by 2030, creating a rapidly approaching deadline.

This makes clear that businesses will need to shift training tactics to seamlessly bridge the workforce gaps. There are some simple steps you can take now to improve your training and retention tactics to keep from sinking.

Offer Flexibility to Older Employees

These days, many people at or near retirement age are choosing not to retire. Whether that is because they cannot afford to retire or choose to work to provide purpose to their days, keeping them on can prove an invaluable option. In order to do so, you may have to be open to different types of work arrangements than what is considered standard. 

People at or around retirement age may be happy to continue working, but their responsibilities often make it difficult for them to work a standard 9 to 5 schedule. Many of them are caring for aging parents or grandchildren. Some are simply looking for part time work. Including options for them to telecommute or work a flexible schedule can make continuing in the workforce for a few more years much more doable.

Train Current Employees

An effective way of ensuring that you have the necessary staff to operate is to cross train current employees in a range of skills needed in the industry. Cross-training helps avoid the predicted brain drain of the silver tsunami and also for times when specialists are out ill or on vacation. 

Taking time to train current employees in more specialized tasks can also increase their satisfaction in the workplace. This type of training also helps ensure the depth of your employment roster, which in turn helps cover unforeseen circumstances. This will be incredibly important as older workers continue to filter out of their current jobs. 

In many industries, workers have a tendency to specialize in one area of expertise. While this can be beneficial, it also creates the circumstances for running into continuing worker shortages. In a well-functioning company, it is imperative that most employees are skilled and able to access necessary information. 

Create a Knowledge Management System

In order to retain the knowledge base that will keep your business relevant into the future, it is important to keep track of it. Letting that knowledge sit idly in employees’ heads or buried in filing cabinets will not cut it. Logging information and managing it so it is accessible when and where staff needs it is most helpful. 

There are two main types of information that most businesses must catalog. They are explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge.

Explicit Knowledge

Explicit knowledge includes all the bits and pieces of industry wisdom included in things like service manuals, training materials and FAQs. Each of these documents can contain incredibly useful information, but that info may be hard to locate or access when needed. Collecting and cataloging explicit knowledge is a fairly simple task, and is a good place to begin.

Tacit Knowledge

The other type of knowledge in any business is the information that resides in the minds of team members. This knowledge allows businesses to run smoothly on any given day. Consulting these expert employees to get quick answers to questions without much trouble is a regular business practice. Unfortunately, these employees do not stick around forever, and cataloging this information will ensure it carries forward even after employees leave. Cataloging this type of knowledge is more difficult than cataloging explicit knowledge, but imperative in passing that information on to the future employees.

Develop Stronger Recruitment Strategies

As the silver tsunami continues to crest, strategies to fill employment gaps left by this silver drain become imperative. Training the current staff will not cover all bases. Something much more important is developing a plan that prepares your employment roster into the future. This long-term planning alleviates having to find aging workforce solutions again in the next few decades. Here are some strategies that will help you get there.

Developing Robust Internship and Feeder Programs

Partnering with high schools, trade schools, community colleges and universities to develop internship and employment feeder programs is one important recruitment strategy. Developing multiple pathways to employment helps give the best and brightest youth access to employment opportunities. Not everyone can have access to the same career pathway, by offering multiple in-roads, you open up your candidate pool and training options. Working directly with schools or developing programs within schools, also help fill important roles with the most suitable candidates. Developing pathways to employment through local educational institutions helps students see what types of roles you have available and what needs to be done to be adequately prepared for success in those roles.

Reaching students before they reach adulthood is also important. A large percentage of jobs will require post secondary education, but universities have reported a 4% decrease in enrollment between 2021 and 2022. Bridging this gap involves thinking outside the box and expanding on the classic view of education and recruitment.

Supporting STEM Early in Student’s Educational Journey

Inspiring students to develop necessary skills early in their educational journey is another important recruitment strategy. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Each of these subjects blends abstract thinking with concrete data. Pair that with the teamwork and creativity that STEM curricula nurtures, and it’s easy to see why STEM learning is so valuable. STEM develops skills in students that are often necessary for filling meaningful roles in expanding careers. Developing skills in these subjects though takes time and students need to be inspired to study these subjects early in their educational journey. 

Many instructors have added the arts to the classic STEM curricula, creating STEAM programs. Adding the arts allows students to apply creativity and vision to problem solving and innovation. Two valuable skills that will also prepare students to fill roles in the future workforce. Again, though, these skills are not developed overnight. Starting students early is vital.

Getting the future workforce involved in STEM and STEAM learning early is key to blunting the impact a changing workforce has on filling important roles. If students do not begin developing STEM skills until high school or even in community college courses, they will be playing catch up instead of filling open job opportunities. Getting students interested in developing STEM skills while in primary or middle school is crucial. Showing middle school students the types of positions and careers that they can fill with these skills can inspire them to develop those skills. Showing them the why early on can be a wonderful way to nurture passion in their own learning.

Sponsoring Youth Workforce Development Programs 

Another important recruitment strategy is to sponsor education outreach programs in your community to inspire STEM learning in young people and help feed new and established internship programs. Workforce development programs, like NTC’s Connect2Next, which are designed to inspire young students in STEM learning and illuminate the career pathways that learning can lead to, is a long-term investment in reaching your workforce development goals. Something the silver tsunami requires in order to quell its effects. It is important to engage and inspire our young people to develop the skills they need for the future and develop multiple pathways that connect industries with potential job candidates. 

The Time is Now

We are rapidly approaching the silver tsunami, meaning the time to act is now. To adequately train the incoming workforce by the time we reach 2030, the threshold when all baby boomers will be 65 or older, we need to focus on the youth. Today’s sixth graders will be 18 years old in 2030. The time for companies to invest in long term planning is now, so they can surf the gray wave instead of being overwhelmed by it.

What is the Silver Tsunami and How Do You Deal with It?