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"When I speak to audiences of senior executives, I ask how many companies are experiencing difficulty right now in filling critical positions, and between 70 and 80 percent of the hands go up," says Roger Herman, lead author of "Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too Few People" and CEO of the Herman Group consulting firm in Greensboro, N.C.

But with some executives struggling to keep their companies afloat in a rocky economy, it's not easy to get them to think strategically about the future workforce crunch.

Training and development of employees are often the first areas to be cut, and companies rarely measure how that might be hurting their bottom line, according to a recent study by Accenture, a New York consulting firm.

It's also difficult to project more than a few years ahead. No one knows for sure if technological advances will create more jobs than they make obsolete. And, of course, if the economy unexpectedly nosedives, a labor shortage won't be the problem.

But barring such dramatic events, closing the skills gap will require a combination of educational gains, more immigration, increased productivity, and higher participation in the workforce, the EPF report concludes.

Everyone's standard of living is on the line. One measure is the growth in per capita personal income (all income divided by the total population). Currently it's about $31,000. By 2033, that could double to $63,000 after adjusting for inflation, the EPF forecasts. But if a labor and skills gap persists, it might reach only $50,000.

A call for more immigration may raise eyebrows, because this period of higher unemployment has caused resentment to rise. But to say that immigrants are "taking jobs" is misleading, Dr. Zey says. "We're not filling them."

At the same time, he says, it's important to change cultural attitudes in the US that discourage people from learning math and technical skills - areas in which firms have sought special visas for foreign employees. "You have to correct the system, not just go for a global brain drain," Zey says.

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