I've done a lot of research over the last few years on the skills gap and the state of our future workforce. I haven't talked to a single CEO or HR executive who isn't worried about finding and retaining enough good talent to manage current pipeline, let alone plan for future innovation and growth. Unless you're in the agricultural industry-and the vast majority of us aren't-we are all facing significant people challenges. And unfortunately statistics show these challenges are going to increase exponentially over the coming years. If we don't begin actively mentoring the next generation of employees now, our chances of lasting business success will diminish along with our workforce.

The Case for Concern

The numbers are cause for concern. Experts agree that population growth has not only slowed over the last 20 years in developed countries like the U.S., but lower birth rates will continue. Compare that forecast with the Baby Boomers, who make up 32 percent of the current professional workforce. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines the professional workforce as "management, professional and related occupations." Those 26 million Baby Boomers will retire over the next 20 years.

According to the U.S. Census, the working age population through 2030 is almost zero percent growth, which means we are losing as many workers as we are adding for the next 15 years. A McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) study on the global labor market indicates that, "employers in advanced economies could face a shortage of 16 to 18 million college-educated workers by 2020, despite rising college-completion rates." In addition to a mass exodus by the aging workforce, the top 30 occupations with the fastest projected growth rate are in services, which essentially includes all industries except those in the goods-producing sector.

The writing is on the wall. The growing talent shortage is coming at us like a freight train. Our work as employers is cut out for us. There are two solutions. The short-term answer is to retrain underemployed or displaced workers from declining industries to fill high-demand jobs. But the longer-term investment-and one with far greater generational and societal impact-is to reshape the paths of those kids who aren't likely to pursue a professional career.

Just Ask Them: Millions of Kids Don't Have Plans for after High School

A few months ago, I spent an afternoon along with some team members with a group of about 80 high school students at a Boys & Girls Club. When I asked them how many had plans for continuing education after graduation (four-year university, community college or vocational/technical school), only three raised a hand. That number astonished me. And of the three who raised a hand, one young woman was on track to attend a four-year university but didn't know when or how to navigate the application process.

These are largely talented kids, many of whom come from good, working class families. But the reality is that they don't have access to the resources necessary to plan for life after high school. Overly populated and under staffed schools often equate to kids slipping through the cracks with marginal grades and no career guidance.

If kids don't come from families where education is expected, prioritized or even discussed, the norm is to not pursue a path of education to get ahead after high school. They take hourly jobs with very little chances for career development or advancement. And even those who make post high school plans face an uphill battle. Up to 40 percent of students from low-income families accepted into college never show up for classes. They lack the financial resources or social support and wind up working rather than getting educated.

Despite the champion work of Boys & Girls Clubs and other great organizations across the country keeping kids safe and in school, there are far too many disadvantaged young people than there are role models to expose them to the alternatives.

We Need to Start Career Conversations Earlier

We all know that today's younger generation is not only tech savvy but also inquisitive and wanting to make a difference. If we take the time to help give them purpose and growth opportunities while filling jobs, it's a win-win.

But we need to start the career aspirations conversation earlier. It's hard to get a good job without some form of education, whether a bachelor's degree, a technical certification or another type of professional training. Too often, however, kids get halfway through high school before fully understanding that mediocre or bad grades can affect their chances of getting into the school they want. We are waiting too long to introduce careers in high demand or show them the differences in wages between highly skilled and hourly workers.

6 Things We Can Do to Move the Needle

As business leaders, we need to get actively involved, not just because it's the right thing to do but also because our future workforce is dependent upon helping disadvantaged kids succeed. Unless we convert more young people into being skilled, educated and job-ready, our bottom lines-and society-will feel the impact.

  1. Spend time with kids during and after school.Lead your company in educating students on your particular industry. Lend your life and work experience and help them understand what their options are and how to build a path to obtaining a professional career.
  2. Get involved with the local schools that need assistance in accessing more resources like tutors, college prep tests and better career aptitude tools. Ask how you can help and they will likely give you a wish list.
  3. Help coach parents into being champions of education. They need our support in encouraging their kids to bet on the long-term career potential of continuing education versus taking a job right after high school.
  4. Work with organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs to add college prep and career path development to their list of services. Get creative. The clubs welcome all types of corporate involvement in shaping after school programming.
  5. Make a commitment to local organizations to hire these talented kids after they are educated. Internships also provide a wonderful opportunity for kids to gain real-world experience and exposure to a professional career.
  6. Find the role models who are willing to share their success across our local and national platforms. Good news and positive stories with meaningful impact naturally inspire others to pay it forward.

The talent shortage is a bigger problem than any individual can fix, but if we each commit to mentoring one young person we will move the needle. As an employer, I am personally energized and motivated by the tremendous potential of the next generation to be our future innovators, problem-solvers and business leaders.

What are your ideas for solving the talent shortage? I'd love to hear them. tony.dibenedetto@tribridge.com