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US economy's hidden asset: older workers

Far from being a drag on the economy, so-called gray labor will be key to America's competitiveness in coming years. Mature workers can bring major productivity gains to US businesses – if we can make changes to better tap their talent.

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Despite old perceptions that aging Americans drag on the economy, new realities demonstrate that properly primed, mature workers can be a key element of the talent pipeline so critical to the nation’s competitiveness.

The statistics tell the story. Gray labor – 55-years and beyond – will account for 90 percent of the increase in the labor market between 2008 and 2018. That’s 90 percent. Demographics are driving this, of course. Americans are living longer and extending their working lives. Some nearing retirement shun it; others without paychecks scramble to secure new jobs. Many older Americans simply want to stay engaged and active, yet an increasing number are so pressed financially, they face a grim future without earned income.

Mature job seekers have a harder time finding work, and they are out of a job much longer than their younger counterparts. Matching their talents with industries desperate for workers in the next five to ten years will turn a potential risk into a real asset.

Key questions

But we’ll have to come up with some answers, and quickly, to tap into mature talent:

Can we position mature Americans to meet industries’ needs for qualified workers? Talking about looming skill shortages in a recession may seem crazy – but the retirement of the baby boomer generation is imminent. Current estimates project a 500,000 shortage in welders in 2014, for example, from the most rudimentary to the most sophisticated – and filling these slots is essential to US manufacturing competitiveness. Other critically important industries such as public/private utilities – from electricity to water – stand to lose half of their workers over the next decade. Or consider the oil and gas workforce, which averages 50 years old, with half being likely to retire in the near future. Workers in these conventional energy sector jobs, from power plant operators to transmission line and pipeline workers, are retiring at a much faster rate than they are being replaced. How can we fill this void, and how can we equip mature workers to serve as supervisors, mentors, and teachers to younger workers coming into these fields?

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