Let’s face it: We’re not getting any younger. And, stressed David DeLong, neither is the U.S. workforce as a whole. DeLong, author of Lost Knowledge; Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce and a research fellow at MIT’s Age Lab, gave a forceful presentation Monday afternoon and tried to answer this troubling question: How can companies and government agencies avoid losing critical knowledge as an entire generation of baby boomers gets ready to retire?
The demographics are daunting. From 2003 to 2013, the number of 50 to 64-year-olds will grow by an average of 40 percent while the population between 30 and 50 will shrink by eight percent, DeLong said. More than 50 percent of U.S. government IT workers, for example, will be eligible to retire by 2013. And the demographic numbers are even worse in Japan and Europe.
DeLong said the problem is critical now because of the explosion of technological and scientific knowledge in the last generation. “When these people leave, they will be taking knowledge that didn’t exist before,” he said. At NASA, for instance, there are three times as many workers over 60 as there are under 30. Technology intensive companies such as defense and aerospace giant Northrop Gruman and power companies such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) are particularly vulnerable, he said.
DeLong was followed by Victor Gulas, Chief People and Knowledge Officer and head of IT at MWH Global Inc., an environmental engineering and construction firm, and Kent Greenes, Chief Knowledge Officer and Senior VP at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).
All three gave some practical advice for CIOs and other managers who need to start thinking about how to get their employees to share their expertise before it’s too late.
DeLong offered the following framework for companies to get started:
- Create an HR process to evaluate what kind of skills are crucial to the organization and try to build a “retention culture” so valuable employees won’t want to leave
- Start transferring important knowledge from experienced to younger workers through communities of practice, debriefing, storytelling and mentoring
- Use technologies such as skills databases, expert locators, social network analysis (SNA), but “don’t lead with a technical solution.”
- Bring back retirees whenever possible.
Gulas echoed DeLong and described how he created “age profiles” to locate key employees in his company, which has more than 150 offices around the world, and determine who might be leaving in the coming decade. MWH also started building “knowledge communities” on its company portal in 2000 and has completed an SNA, a surveying process that creates a map depicting how employees find and share information.
Greenes wrapped up the discussion by explaining how SAIC accelerated training for employees going to work in a reconstruction project in Iraq. The employees started training before leaving for Iraq, continued with short sessions while they were there and continued to analyze the process after returning. The result, in this case, is a comprehensive “knowledge/asset portal” with key information from those who’ve already been there and learned from their experience.