Global Workforce Crisis: Time To Start Thinking

In an interesting TED talk (see below), Rainer Strack underscores the urgency of thinking about global workforce crisis. The numbers, as projected in the work of BCG (to which he was a contributor), are indeed telling: The workforce crisis may cost $10 trillion worth of GDP between 2020 and 2030 (see the BCG work here).

This is not any doomsday talk urging people into action, because the facts are in plain sight anyway: The population in developed nations are aging and there are not enough new births to take the place of retirees. The solutions are common sense but politically impossible: Import workers from countries which may have surplus labour or worse working conditions. Indeed, Messers Strack and others see the limitations in this formula and suggest a mix of measures, not just geographical migration but also non-geographical ones (such as offshoring) and bringing more women and retirees into workforce (Child labour is indeed a taboo subject).

This conversation is important in itself, but assume a complex and rather menacing dimension altogether in the context of the global conversation on automation. The point made in Mr Strack's talk, that the number of jobs may not be going down as new technologies create new kinds of jobs, is true only to certain extent. Seen in the context of global workforce crisis from big company point of view, this may be true and present a great challenge on its own. However, automation may be destroying jobs elsewhere too, not just in manufacturing but in services too (this may still lie largely in the future, but near future), create a social and political context which we can't altogether escape in the conversation about global workforce crisis. While the workers from countries like India may want to go and work in the US or UK, it may not be politically possible for those countries to take them in: The Pakistani Banker, though he may possess a different skillset, may set off worst kind of emotions in a jobless English factory worker.

The assumption behind the already gloomy picture of the workforce crisis presented here is that the structure of the global economy will somewhat remain the same, with advanced manufacturing, services and research and development remaining clustered in Western Europe and North America. However, this may change and as Singapore (and some other countries) have shown, with political will, it is possible to create skill economies within a generation or so. This may accentuate the Global Workforce crisis, by expanding the demand in new areas and worsening the crisis in the West. 

The other interesting observation is that the global labour movements may, in the end, end up making or breaking the fortunes of the economies. It should be bad news for India that most of its young workers may want to migrate if there is an opportunity, because only the most able will be able to. Similarly, when this crisis is around the corner, national insularity may be a great baggage than it was previously: Japan may need the young workers more than most other economies but may not be the most preferred place for an young engineer to migrate to.

The Global Workforce Crisis, as it plays out, would also represent a pivot point for educators. Its challenge, and its opportunities, may force educators to be cognizant about the twin forces of globalisation and automation more deeply. The governments like India's, which has wasted two decades tinkering with Higher Education policy and mostly wasting its demographic opportunity in a scandalous free-for-all chaos, may finally be forced to think about it by economic considerations when all other appeals to senses have failed. All this may allow some innovation in education, at all levels as necessary, which the vested interests have resisted for so long. 

In summary, it is time to start thinking. During my time in recruitment trade, I did talk and write about the need of National Talent Management ministries (see here): It is time to renew that discussion now, with some added urgency. Collectively, nations are doing a bad job at attracting, fostering and retaining talent: The need to change course couldn't be more urgent.


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