The Age of Aging

They say age is just a number. But when it comes to an aging workforce, numbers matter. Every day 10,000 of the 81 million Baby Boomers (defined today as ages 54-72) retire from the US workforce. While this number is shocking, the bigger eye opener is that the Gen X population (estimated today to be 61 million) are not nearly plentiful enough to replenish these jobs.

This phenomenon is upon us. We can’t change it, but we can work to understand it and leverage it to our benefit. Here are a few things to consider as you prepare for the inevitable changes to come.

Free Agency

Gen Xers (defined today as ages 36-53) will be in more demand than ever, as they have the experience and seasoning to fill the mid- to senior-level positions that Boomers are retiring from. Since the Gen X hiring pool is smaller by about 20 million (equal to the population of the state of New York), competition for this talent will definitely intensify, making this shortage of expertise look more like the professional sports industry vying for top performers with defined experience, and driving high demand and salaries for key positions.

Experts say the biggest demand will probably be business folks in their mid to late 40’s – those with a good balance of experience, energy and innovative ideas. If I were a Gen Xer, I would look to sharpen my resume and add any additional experiences I could in order to round out my expertise, then get ready to be scouted!

Bring Sexy Back

Since simple math tells us the Gen X backfill will not be enough, employers will need to attract the attention of the Millennial population (nearly 90 million strong). This may be tricky for some of today’s largest industries like construction and real estate (collectively the largest US industry at $2.3 trillion) which are considered decidedly unsexy by this population. For instance, there is a strikingly low interest level for this group (aged 20-35) to either join the construction industry – either as labor or even taking over for a parent’s business attached to this industry. That means succession planning for family-owned construction or building products companies is extremely limited – spurring businesses to sell, be acquired, or worse – merely close down.

While the labor shortage is driving some architects, builders and manufacturers to look for innovative ways to streamline or even automate installation, those changes only make it more important for the business and operations side to attract strong talent to shepherd these companies through this period of change. 

The ironic thing is that more and more students are graduating with entrepreneur degrees. I teach hundreds of these students each year at Notre Dame and the University of Dayton, where I see young people who are excited about the chance to run a business versus going to work in corporate America. Our industry is bursting with opportunity to pair young entrepreneurs with small companies in need of a succession plan. To get it done, the industry needs to find a way to bring sexy back (apologies to Justin Timberlake), or it will suffer from labor shortages not just on the installer side, but also in management and business roles too.

Skate Where the Puck Will Be

Another part of engaging the Millennial group is locating your jobs where the candidates are going to be. Just because you have an open job doesn’t mean Millennials will clamor to fill it. And no, it’s not because they’re lazy. Yes, they grew up in a world of participation trophies, but also in a time of unprecedented change. They’ve seen parents and grandparents “right-sized” right out of lifelong careers while peers are making a good living in jobs that didn’t exist 5 or 10 years ago. They’re natural innovators because it’s always been a part of their life and their expectations.

Millennials are selective in what they do and where they live. They want work that gives them a sense of fulfillment and opportunities for work-life balance. Your challenge is to find ways to appeal to those desires. That could mean finding creative ways to “be present” in key markets via community activities, social media or satellite offices in growing markets and urban areas. It could also mean rethinking your work structure to incorporate flexible work-from-home options or finding other ways to foster a culture that offers more than just a paycheck.

Positioned for Success

We as marketers spend significant time and dollars repositioning our products or the categories we play in. Now, we must use these same processes and skills to reposition our whole industry away from what has become a commodity mindset.

Leaf through our typical industry trade pubs and you’ll see that many ads (and the features they tout) are similar to those from 10 or 15 years ago. We haven’t changed much, but the expectations of those we serve have. Just pick up Dwell magazine, watch HGTV or go spend time on Houzz or Pinterest. You’ll see what the industry really looks like – and more importantly, what consumers and trade (who now act like consumers) are more interested in. Why would 44 million people watch HGTV every week, or post 14 million pictures on Houzz if this wasn’t truly a sexy industry?

These are not just commodity products, they are enablers to creating a unique environment for our largest investment in life. A few leading brands are carving out positions that reflect that. “A door is not just a door, it’s the centerpiece of the beauty of each room,” says Masonite, the leading door manufacturer. In the roofing industry, Owens Corning is showing how “roofing color and accessories can redefine the exterior of the home to express the homeowners’ personal style.”

Our customers, like many Millennials, are selective, and looking for the emotional connection in our approach. Which means the work we do to appeal to one can also help in our efforts to reach the other.

Ready, Set, Shift!

They say numbers don’t lie. We can’t change the raw data behind our aging workforce. But we can read between the numbers to find ways to shift the numbers in our favor.

There are numerous opportunities out there to attract new blood into the industry, both as employees and customers. The companies that leverage these changes most effectively will be the ones that see the positive change in their numbers, specifically profitability.

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