The Labor Shortage – The Unfortunate Reality

A virus can be blamed for many current realities, and certainly its impact includes the multi-factorial employment issue that Tom Casey and his colleagues at Discussion Partner Collaborative (DPC) meaningfully explore in this blog that’s been repurposed from their hugely popular July white paper of the same moniker.  As their research conveys, however, the global labor shortage won’t be resolved by the cascading impact that the pandemic-inspired ending to unemployment benefits provides.  This multi-factorial employment issue is fundamentally about talent readiness.  Having said that, let’s avoid the tendency to immediately point to Talent Acquisition for solutions.  Instead, as you reference this blog titled “The Labor Shortage – The Unfortunate Reality,” read with your holistic organizational lens.  Talent readiness is as much about retention (a.k.a. organizational culture, executive leadership, demonstrated inclusion, total rewards, professional development, succession planning, etc.) as it is finding and attracting the best talent.  That’s what I experienced differently about this work by Tom and DPC.  We have a crisis around labor that showcases how important it is for the solutions to be everyone’s responsibility, not strictly those who lead or contribute in Human Resources.  NEEBC, and I personally, are honored by the opportunity to share this important work on an emerging, substantial, universal workforce issue. 

Introduction by Robin Antonellis, Executive Director of NEEBC

2021 is proving to be a dynamic year for a host of reasons:

  • Covid-19’s Delta Variant
  • Global economic disequilibrium
  • Democratic challenges
  • Institutional racism discourse
  • Climate change debate
  • US post-election reset of domestic and foreign policy

As daunting as these tasks will prove to be, the newest challenge before us is the real-time problem of Talent Readiness, which at its core is the attraction and retention of sufficient resources to prosecute the enterprise business case.

Difficulties being offered as “reasons” include the generosity of unemployment benefits associated with the Care Act and/or the lack of career motivation ascribed to those who are reluctant to return to work prompting insulting descriptors.

With all due respect to the pundits, the problem isn’t associate selfishness or unwillingness to qualify for a Ranger tab by returning to the office, it is essentially the demographics and employee self-assessment. The true problem is the people we are looking to hire were never born, and those that were are reflecting on the next steps in their career journey.

In the US we are not quite to the stage where advertisements will read: “Come stay at our five-star hotel. We will teach you how to make your own breakfast.” But stay tuned – anything can happen. A current problem if you need to speak to an airline, regardless of your elite status, is you might get a call back after three hours!

The demographic reality of the declining birth rate has prompted societal responses such as the Juneteenth (so cool to be able to reference this date) Wall Street Journal front-page article, "China Poised to Lift All Childbirth Controls." They are doing so for the straightforward problem that without an increase in the birthrate, their economic model will collapse.

While China is getting most of the news on the topic, other societies were coping with the demographic realities and the consequence of it on their social benefits programs long before the pandemic.

A public service announcement in Australia several years ago was entitled: "Two for the Family; One for the Country" – essentially urging families to have three children. As you can reasonably speculate, the media references as to what folks were saying, as the Pubs closed in Sydney were hysterical and blue. I'm sure they were meant as patriotic sentiments.

I am the oldest of seven born to a WW2 Veteran and a Catholic. Among his closest friends, the prodigy ranged from 7 to 11. When all together for a buffet, it was similar to a rugby scrum.

During my career I have been lucky to work with several thought leaders on the implications of demographics on the future of work and the need for companies to proactively plan. Authors such as Tammy Erickson, Dr. Lynda Gratton, Bob Morison and Tom Wilson.

Their predictions on what was inevitable are today’s reality. Doctor Gratton’s most recent article, the cover in this segment of The Harvard Business Review, focuses on the need for flexibility in post-pandemic business models.

The challenge before us is not only demographic. It is both incumbent aspirational and leadership attitudinal.

On the aspirational, the WSJ on June 13 had an article, “Forget Going Back to The Office  People Are Quitting Instead." On June 14, TIME magazine had an article, "The Great Reopening," referencing a PEW study, which found that 66% of those without jobs want to change careers. The same article referenced a Harvard Business School study, where 81% of those surveyed preferred a hybrid work schedule. 

A March 2021 survey by Prudential Financial found 25% of the 2,000 associate respondents plan to look for alternative employer settings. The Atlantic on June 22nd highlighted a May Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that in all sectors 4 out of 10 of those currently employed are considering alternative arrangements.

The same BLS study indicated over 700,000 of those in the “professional and business services” category left their jobs – the highest ever!

While the strategic value of hybrid schedules is a work in progress, what is abundantly clear from the attitudinal perspective is employees are pushing back on being told when to return to full-time office locations as evidenced in the TIME article that identified Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and We Works. They are not alone. The June 6 Business Insider headline read: "Apple Staff Revolt Against CEO Tim Cook’s Order to Return to Office."

The above is supported by Discussion Partners research, which began approximately a year ago, where we identified a post-pandemic emerging trend whereby many executives are self-selecting accelerated transitions from their leadership roles challenging enterprise sustainability and succession planning.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a game changer for executives who are approaching their careers with an attitude of: “Life is too short. I have other interests I want to pursue.” We are also finding that executives, if not leaving immediately, are adopting what DPC refers to as “the Divisibility Factor” – i.e., dividing by two their original departure date.

Talent Readiness Survey Results (575 Respondents May 2021)
The below principles were identified by DPC as “lines of defense” to navigate the challenges of the labor market shortage.

  1. Frame the challenge in terms of strategic, leadership and demographically realistic terms.
  2. Embrace the reality that hybrid is here to stay, creating a dashboard that monitors vs. tries to disprove the concept.
  3. Do not by design nor inference manifest a lack of career commitment to those who prefer a hybrid model.
  4. Do a reset of leadership development programs emphasizing empathy, transparency, collaboration, and predictability skills development.
  5. Create soft-landing company affiliation programs for executives who choose to transition such as advisory, mentoring, emeritus approaches.
  6. Clear delineation of who is and isn’t a high potential while insuring the commitment for development of the franchise players.
  7. Isolate while tolerating leaders who “don’t get it,” transitioning them to “first do no harm” circumstances.
  8. Re-examine Total Rewards strategy for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  9. Adopt the Roosevelt adage for recruitment: “Try everything. If it works, keep doing it. If not, try something else.”
  10. Assume your company is a learning laboratorydevelop aggressively

A May study by Deloitte of 5000 female global executives indicated that the accelerant for post-pandemic retention will be inclusion and flexibility. The demographic realities with broader context of aspiration and attitudinal influencers suggest it is contraindicated not to think situational vs. traditional, as the problem is not a short-lived dilemma, it is a systemic challenge that will be with us for a while.

Thomas F. Casey, Managing Principal, and Claire Hebert-Dow, Discussion Partner Collaborative LLC,

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