By William Atkinson
It's no secret that supply chain functions today are engaged in what AMR Research has described as a "war for talent." The name of a recent report from the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics says it all: "Are You Prepared for the Supply Chain Talent Crisis?" The author, Ken Cottrill, points out: "Supply chain faces a severe shortage of talent at a time when the demands on the profession have never been greater... Companies must be more proactive in their approach to recruiting, developing and retaining the supply chain professionals they need to stay competitive."
Meanwhile, we are witnessing major economic and demographic trends impacting the workforce, including downsizing as a result of the recession, as well as an unprecedented generational change as Baby Boomers retire. As these experienced staff walk out the door, they are taking with them years of knowledge and expertise. In effect, they are leaving with a key element of the employer's competitive advantage.
A case in point: "At a recent customer meeting with NASA, we were discussing the fact that almost everyone who had worked on the development of previous manned space vehicles had already retired, and with them, a priceless wealth of knowledge and experience had been lost forever," reports Andy Brown, business development director for IHS ESDU, which provides engineering solutions.
According to Michael Thompson, manager of electronic publishing for engineering association SAE International, the nation has a larger generation of workers who are set to retire, with a much smaller workforce left to fill their shoes in industries that have a growing, not a shrinking, demand for highly skilled workers.
Multiple Leaks in the Drain
The rising demand for engineering talent is illustrative of this dilemma. Despite the recent recession, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there is about a 12 percent growth in demand for engineering talent in the United States alone over about a 10-year horizon. Even with the recent economic downturn, the growth rate diminished slightly but didn't go negative by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it is still about 4 percent. "If your knowledge walks out the door, you have to reinvent it or reacquire it, and that gets very, very expensive," points
And the problem is more severe than just retirements. "Over the last 20 to 30 years, we have seen repeated downsizing and outsourcing operations strip experienced midlevel staff out of many companies, and many of these people are leaving their professions, never to return," says Brown.
A third element to the problem: Many skilled staff working in the US over the years are foreign-born, having come here for better employment opportunities. However, with the expansion of the "world economy," many of these employees are returning to their native lands.
While large numbers of skilled staff are leaving the US, either via past downsizings, upcoming retirements or moves to foreign countries, the number of students in school who can replace them often is not keeping up. "Many companies are trying to fill the void by hiring graduates," notes Brown. However, competition for the best and brightest is fierce. Adding to the problem is that many students who obtain degrees in the US come here from other countries to complete their education, and then return to their homelands for employment.
Plugging the Brain Drain
So what are the solutions to the "brain drain"? Most of them revolve around a concept known as "knowledge transfer." According to Thompson, knowledge transfer in organizations is the process through which one unit, group, department, division and even individual is affected by the experience of another.* "We can think of knowledge transfer as organizing and capturing information for current and future generations," he says. It is not merely a one-time communication, and it is not an e-mail or a memo. It is a way to capture and relate knowledge between and among individuals or groups in a manner such that the knowledge lives on.