One of the amusing things about the rhetoric surrounding the War for Talent in today’s global economy is how much of it focuses on U.S. intergenerational demographics. Observers will compare the 80 million or so baby boomers in the United States – who are approaching retirement – to the 50 million or so Generation Xers and presume that there will be a shortfall of people in the workforce numbering in the tens of millions. If only it were that simple…!@!

However, the talent gap is not a mere numbers game. The fact is that the baby boomers probably will stay in the workforce beyond the standard retirement age for a variety of reasons – paltry personal savings, strong emotional attachment to their jobs, increasingly flexible work arrangements, greater vitality in old age and so forth. Moreover, the birth years of the successive Gen Xers and Millennials aren’t as standardized as those of the boomers (1946-1964 is pretty much universally accepted), so it’s hard to pin down meaningful numbers for either of these generations to determine what, exactly, the shortfall will be.

Based on these and other factors, there are a few pundits who have suggested the figures around the talent shortage are grossly exaggerated. I would count myself among them, but I’m not suggesting that there isn’t serious cause for concern. So, what’s the big deal? Here’s the issue, the “big secret” referenced in the headline: There is a talent gap looming, but it has much more to do with the personal choices of young people (i.e., those who are currently between 13-25) than their sheer numbers.

First of all, instead of majoring in the disciplines where qualified professionals are badly needed – such as IT and engineering – far more of them are opting for a liberal arts academic path or other fields that aren’t necessarily focused on the realities of the job market. Moreover, many of them delay their progression toward undergraduate and graduate degrees for personal pursuits such as travel and other life experiences, which can keep them out of the workforce until their late twenties and even early thirties. (This is nothing new, but it’s not something that was generally considered in the context of organizational talent.)

Learning executives should be thrilled by these circumstances. If the War for Talent were just a numbers game – as is often posited – there might not be much they could do about it. But if the competition comes down to being able to deliver the skills and knowledge necessary for an organization’s success, then the function that can develop requisite skills and knowledge in employees during a talent crunch is critical indeed. There is a real opportunity here for learning leaders who understand the needs of their enterprises and can align their strategies and programs to those.

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