By Dean Whittaker

In Mark Lautman’s new book, “When Boomers Bail: A Community Economic Survival Guide,” he focuses our attention on a looming issue of a “zero-sum labor market” for qualified workers and how it will impact all of us, especially those engaged in traditional economic development. Mark describes the challenge most communities are unaware of and that has been masked by the current recession which is that we are about to have the largest exodus out of the workforce in history as our aging workforce can no longer meet the labor needs of an expanding economy. The Baby-Boomers did not have enough children to replace themselves, therefore, creating a demographic “Baby-Bust” throughout the industrialized world.

He goes on to refute many of the mitigating factors such as increasing productivity, immigration, automation, and several more to show that we have entered a “zero-sum labor market” in which the power shifts from the company and community to the worker. As communities vie to attract and keep talent to staff their economic-base companies, we will have entered the talent wars.

Lautman points out that all the workers in the workforce are already here. He breaks down the workforce into four quadrants of a pie: 1) Qualified workers, 2) Unqualified workers, 3) Too young to work, and 4) Too old to work. The segment of the qualified workers is shrinking as the boomers grow too old to work (even if they wanted to do so). The unqualified worker segments grows as we “drop our kids in the academic dirt” through our failing school systems. The too young and too old segments become dependent on a shrinking segment of qualified worker as the tax supported services cost go through the roof. Not a pretty picture to be sure.

At the risk of becoming a doom and gloom book that no one wants to read, he describes an effort through the newly formed Community Economic Laboratory that looks for solutions and innovative approaches to economic development to address the issues he raises. While it is still early in the game, some glimmer of hope has appeared. However, there will still be community winners and losers in this new paradigm.

Those communities will prosper that develop tools, tactics, and techniques to monitor and adjust their economic development approach to address the ever-changing workforce needs and demographics.

They will need to create an infrastructure that attracts and supports talent including “third bedroom” basic income generating “gold collar workers” that export their services outside of the local economy. They will need to better match the work to the worker as the sophistication of the work escalates, creating the need for life-long learning opportunities. They will need to provide bandwidth as a critical piece of the utility infrastructure, and they will need to provide third places to work such as community business center with shared services.

As Bob Dylan has said, “The Times, They Are A-Changin’.” How we respond to these changes will determine our future.