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A 'future' in helping the firm hurdle people-problems

Until recently, a transfer to the personnel department was seen as the corporate equivalent of a trip to Siberia. Fast-rising executives wanted to be in departments like finance or marketing which had a clear impact on corporate profits.

But in the 1980s, human resource problems are expected to be major hot spots for US companies. As a result, some young managers on the fast track are now being shifted into personnel.

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''There is a growing trend to take people in line management and put them in personnel,'' says Henry M. Morgan, dean of the Boston University School of Management.

Rising corporate stars will have to help their companies jump over a host of personnel hurdles. The coming human resource challenges include:

* Flagging morale. Managers' enthusiasm is expected to wane when executives from the baby boom generation find there are not enough upper-level slots to go around.

* Displaced workers. A significant number of employees are likely to be displaced by new technology and will have to be retrained.

* Changing retirement patterns. As more employees keep working after their 65 th birthday, firms will lose an automatic way to replace workers who are no longer effective. Thus, performance review systems will have to be made more reliable.

''There will be many more serious challenges than anyone has seen on the human resources front'' during the 1980s, says Eli Ginzburg, a Columbia University labor economist.

Perhaps the toughest forthcoming personnel problem is crowding on the promotion ladder as members of the baby boom generation vie for upper-level jobs. ''I see tremendous trouble in large companies with crowding in middle management ranks,'' Dr. Ginzburg says. ''It is inevitable from the demography alone.''

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Because a large number of young workers entered corporations from the mid- 1960s to the early 1970s, ''there is likely to be a block'' to promotions in the 1980s, says Harry Levinson, a human resource consultant to major companies and president of the Levinson Institute.

One reason for the block is that most companies are like pyramids. The higher up you go, the fewer slots there are. ''That is compounded by the fact that organizations are not growing as rapidly as they once did,'' Dr. Levinson says. He and Ginzburg both spoke here last week at a meeting of the Employment Management Association.

The challenge will be to find ways of keeping employees happy ''when you cannot reward them . . . by very quick promotion in a vastly expanding hierarchy ,'' Ginzburg says.

''I don't think lateral moves are going to help much'' in keeping workers happy, says Levinson.''People are increasingly aware of what a lateral move means.''

One positive effect organizational crowding has for workers is that they will tend to put down permanent roots in communities ''when they are in their mid-40s and find they are not moving up the ladder.''

The only thing tougher than not moving up the ladder is being thrown off of it, at least temporarily. And that is what new production line and office technology is expected to do to a growing number of workers.

Both robots and word processing equipment are expected to reduce the number of workers required to handle office and production chores. As a result of the new technology, ''there are a lot of people whose skills will be less and less needed,'' Levinson notes.

Part of the challenge in retraining these workers is that their new jobs will require higher levels of intelligence than their previous positions. For instance, Levinson notes that robots ''will be doing the work of people with average intelligence. (So) there is a whole range of people who will have to be adapted to situations which call for higher levels of intelligence and (ability to deal with) abstraction.''

While training displaced workers for more complex jobs will be a challenge for corporate personnel officials, it may also create significant benefits for employees. For example, workers using computers can handle more aspects of a job. ''That means jobs will become more interesting,'' contends Frederick A. Roesch, senior vice-president of Citicorp, the parent corporation of Citibank. ''People will be able to deal with a whole body of information on any transaction, . . . and that opens up opportunities for more creativity.'' Mr. Roesch and Mr. Morgan both spoke at a Boston University symposium on the changing corporate culture held last week.

Workers who hold more creative jobs are likely to stay in them longer than has been common in the past. ''People are likely to hang around into their 70s, '' says Ginzburg, who is in that category himself. Employees will also postpone retirement, he says, because ''the only way you can be comfortable in old age is to keep working.'' Since workers will no longer leave at age 65, accurate performance reviews will become increasingly important in weeding out marginal performers. ''You had better watch (employees') evaluations when they are in their 50s, because when someone gets to be 60 and you start to move them out, you are going to have a suit on your hands,'' Ginzburg says.

To cope with these challenges, human resources managers will require increasing intuition as the 1980s progress, according to Ralph Z. Sorenson, president of Barry Wright Corporation and former dean of Babson College. What is needed, he says, ''is good, hardworking, humble managers with a bias toward action and empathy with people.''

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