As workforce ages and expands, spotlight turns to the next generation

Over the past two years, Chris Baker, CEO and president of George & Lynch, an infrastructure contractor in Dover, estimates he has replaced about 25% of his workforce.

“That number is all because of an aging workforce,” he says.

A recent scan of some labor data for his own company revealed to Baker that in the next 10 years, “close to a third” of his employees will retire. Some of those jobs will be replaced by technology, but others will require an influx of new workers. And that means opportunity.

“It’s going to result in higherwages,” Baker says. “It will also result in companies, associations and the state providing opportunities for workforce trainings. When I came into the industry, most of the training was on the job.”

Chris Baker. CEO and President of George & Lynch. | Photo by Eric Crossan

That trend is holding throughout Delaware. Although the total labor force in the state is expected to expand steadily over the next few decades, it is going to be an older group of workers, which fits in well with overall population projections for the First State, according to the Delaware Office of Occupational and Labor Market Information. Alisha Bryson,vice president of Wilmington’s Wayman Fire Protection, is quite direct in her assessment.

“There’s not even enough people to fill the demand now,” she says. “Ten years out, it won’t just be that we have lost the bodies, but we will have also lost intellectual capital.”

By next year, there will be 491,117 people capable of working in the state, a jump of more than 15,000 from 2015. In June 2019, 45.2% of those eligible to work were 45 and older, and 25.1% were 55-plus. Although the total of those 45 and older has not changed, the 55-and-over cohort has increased nearly 3% since 2012 and is up 9.1% from 2005. Those numbers ought to hold pretty steady moving forward, and it will be interesting to see if older workers continue to pursue spots in the labor picture, or if they retire or are forced out.

“As the workforce ages, the number of younger people employed is going down,” according to Dr. George Sharpley, who is chief of the office. Part of that has to do with young people’s staying in school longer, the better to get the training they need to start careers. Another factor is that high school students aren’t working summer jobs like they used to, choosing instead to do community service and other projects that will look good on college applications. 

They will all eventually join the workforce, and it is imperative they are ready to produce, since as older Delawareans move out, companies will be looking to fill their positions with capable people.

When Randy Gruschl takes a look at the statistics about Delaware’s aging workforce, he thinks less about those who will be retiring and moving on and more about how he and his fellow members of the Delaware Foundation for Science and Mathematics Education can connect with elementary school children.

“We think more and more kids need to get excited about science and math before middle school, so they have career paths in mind,” says Gruschl, who is the Foundation’s executive director. “They need a nurturing environment in and out of school to help kids follow their interests, regardless of background.”

The rapidly changing technology landscape means that a lot of the professions available to a 10-year old today may not be in existence when they reach working age. Think about it. In 2006, there was no iPhone. Now, we can’t imagine life without one, or an Android. Gruschl wants to make sure kids at every stage of their development have access to quality STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curricula and the ability to develop skills that will prepare them for the working world — however it may look — when they reach their 20s, and those people who are employed now have moved on or are planning to move on.

Gruschl also believes it is important to teach young people “soft skills” — how to communicate effectively, work ethic, punctuality, etc. — in an attempt to help them be employable and successful.

“Part of what the foundation does is gather thought leaders to look at the big picture,” says Gruschl, who spent 40 years working at DuPont, many of them in research and development. 

According to Luke Rhein, who is the director of career and technical education and STEM initiatives for the Delaware Department of Education, there is a significant demographic change coming in the next decade, as older workers leave the workforce. He reports that as much as 40% of those employed could be retiring, leaving plenty of opportunities for young people to enter — and thrive in — the state’s job market. As a result of these openings, Rhein feels it is vital to have a strong plan to prepare the next generation for the challenges ahead.

The first component is to make sure that every child in school has an educational path that leads to “a viable career in the state of Delaware.” Next is a commitment to helping people employed now to “upskill” themselves, particularly if they have jobs that do not require advanced ability. Because of the growing reliance companies have on technology, and in the future, artificial intelligence, it is vital that they are able to keep up.

Finally, the state must recruit talent from all over the region to fill the openings. That means if someone from Maryland graduates from the University of Delaware, it is important for there to be reasons for him or her to stay in this state to work, beyond just job openings. There must be places to live, re-create, shop and dine that appeal to 20-somethings looking for the kind of settings that are available elsewhere. Rhein says the biggest opportunities will be in health sciences, human services, finance, hospital architecture and construction, and of course, technology.

“We have made a concerted effort to expand college and career programs for all youth,” Rhein says. “High school students can access advance college prep work and advance career training.”

The state has a menagerie of programs across all possible sectors that are designed to train and encourage people to enter the workforce prepared to succeed. The Young Farmers Loan Program offers 30-year, no-interest loans to qualified individual looking to purchase land. The SEED program and INSPIRE scholarships provide tuition assistance at UD, Delaware State and Delaware Technical Community College. And the state is supporting those interested in trade careers by supporting the Registered Apprenticeship Program and the Registered Pre-Apprenticeship Program, for those who need more help getting ready to enter a trade.

The goal is to make sure the next generation is ready to step forward as current workers move on from their careers.

“We want to expose young people to a lot of opportunities,” Rhein says. “We need to be deliberate in how we foster that.”

And to make sure the next generation is ready to work. 

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