Coming to Grips with the New Workplace: Exploring Skills Shortages


Have you noticed how your workplace has changed? You may be struggling with the skills shortage. Or coming to grips with Gen Y, the group attracting all the media attention and frustrated conversations over dinner. Or you may be dealing simply with the pace of change and the increasing pressure to deliver. Whatever is most obvious to you, certainly the pace of those changes seems to be accelerating.

Let's focus on skills shortages, currently impacting most industries and also affecting individuals in terms of workload and time pressure. Whether it's health, manufacturing, IT, trades, engineering, finance, or transport, these challenges aren't going to disappear quickly. Have you ever stopped to wonder why we have such a skills shortage?

Perhaps you've assumed the problem was localized. In fact, the problem is far wider. The challenge is that skills shortages are global and the situation will probably get worse before it gets better. We're running out of skilled people. The pool is diminishing and that "war for talent", predicted in business articles, is already here. In a world where technology is a leveler, highly skilled, creative people provide the sole competitive edge for a business. Talent and skills plus innovation drive business success, if not survival.

The dearth of people is fairly simple to explain. Declining birth rates from the second half of the 20th century, combined with the ageing of existing populations, are rapidly distorting the traditional demographic picture of society across the industrialized world. This is equally true of some of the emerging economies like China and India. There would seem to be an incongruity between accounts of an overpopulated world and the realities of declining workforces. However, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affaires has captured the realities of an ageing population globally in a pictorial map showing the percentage of the population that will be aged 60 years or over in 2050 – around 30% across these nations. Skills might be scarce now, but as our populations age the situation will become more acute.

The problem is a little more complex though. We're also losing people because we don't know how to keep them – the young, talented Gen Y with the world almost literally at their fingertips. We're discarding others because we don't know how to use them effectively – the Baby Boomers with their lifetimes of experience but, sometimes, outdated technological skill. If we're going to solve the problem for the long term we're going to need to learn how to keep people at work and work collaboratively with everyone in these new workplaces. We're going to need to ask some more questions about the way we work with people and then seek some interesting solutions.

Since skilled people are so much in demand, critical questions for business surely must be:

"What do we need to do to develop the potential of all the staff we've got now?"


"What can we do to keep these people?"

An even better question to ask is:

"What do they need from us to enable them to be creative and to come up with ideas that will serve us well or give us a competitive edge?"

Unfortunately, it would seem these questions are not asked frequently enough.

Business leaders are starting to agree. CCL's 10 Trends whitepaper reports executives highlighting the need for communication and collaboration as core skills for the future. Further, they observe "that leaders and organizations need to develop the mindset, culture and competencies that support collaboration". That's how our new workplaces must evolve.

This will involve creating workplaces:

  • that encourage innovation, where people feel free to explore opportunities, voice opinions without the pressure to conform and where the emphasis is on seeking solutions instead of laying blame
  • where respect, genuine team work and the celebration of achievements really can create positive changes
  • where people are valued, difference is appreciated and where it is understood that every person is capable of achieving his or her potential for making worthwhile contributions to the workplace
  • that allow for flexible working arrangements, where people feel safe to contribute at their own level according to the needs of age or their inclination

These workplaces do demand a different mindset, not just from leaders but from everyone. Can you ask and seek solutions to some of the questions I have posed? Can you create this kind of workplace in your own organization? It might be fun to try.

What the Researchers Say ...

The Watson Wyatt Asia Pacific's Ageing Workforce™ study, in 2006 predicted that "by 2050, Asia Pacific will be home to most of the world's elderly people, with 998 million people aged 60 and above … in Singapore the proportion of the population over 50 is set to increase from 23% to 50% over the next 25 years". It recommends that employers will need to focus far more attention on attracting and retaining older workers.

In Australia, a research report by the Productivity Commission in 2005, entitled Economic implications of an ageing Australia, offers a disturbing graphic representation of our changing demographics under the caption "From pyramid to coffin. Changing age structure of the Australian population 1925-2045". This depicts a "coffin-shaped" future where the numbers of people coming through to replace the current Baby Boomers are far fewer.

Access Economics, in it's Population Ageing and the Economy, reports that the working age population between 2000 and 2005 grew on average 170,000 per year. Their projection is that by 2010, growth will reduce to 138,000 per year. And for the ten year span 2020 to 2030, it will only grow by 125,000 in total.


Copyright © Jennifer McCoy

About the Author
Jennifer McCoy

Jennifer McCoy is a senior associate with Business Performance Pty Ltd as well as running her own consulting practice. Jennifer specializes in generational leadership and workplace communication. Through her coaching practice, she assists small and medium sized businesses build leadership skills, improve communication and develop teamwork. She is also the author of 2 Way Feedback – How to build more effective staff relationships through a culture of constructive feedback. Jennifer can be contacted at

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