No end in sight for labor shortage

Jonathan Sweet
By Jonathan Sweet

A recent study from The Conference Board paints a disturbing picture of the future of blue-collar labor. For markets like the boating industry that are already facing major shortages, that’s a concerning development.

Most notably, the study’s authors say the labor shortage will last until at least 2030 and could develop into the worst labor shortage in more than 50 years. That would, in turn, lead to a decline in the nation’s overall standard of living and declining profits in manufacturing, transportation, construction and any industry that relies on blue-collar labor.

The reasons for this crisis should be no surprise to those working in the boating industry: Baby Boomers retiring and near-zero growth in the working age population, disability rates are at a record high and young workers (ages 16-24) are much less likely to be in the workforce.

These are exacerbated by several factors, including a growing rate of students choosing to enroll in college rather than consider blue-collar jobs. Many millennial men without college degrees are choosing not to work, leading to a workforce participation rate that is still well below pre-recession levels

At the same time, there has been a rapidly increasing demand for jobs in the blue-collar sector, with a growth in e-commerce (warehouse jobs) and declining worker productivity, along with a generally strong economy.

This has had a mix of results, both good and bad. On the positive side, employee satisfaction is improving and the workforce is becoming more diverse with more women and minorities entering jobs previously dominated by white males. On the negative, rising wages, while good for employees, put pressure on employers. Labor quality is also decreasing as turnover rate increases and companies turn to more inexperienced candidates.

So what about solutions?

Raising wages is the most common solution that companies employ, but that can only go so far. The Conference Board’s research of more than 200 companies found that increasing pay is only a short-term solution that eventually fails to solve the problem. (There’s always someone willing to pay more!)

Here is what The Conference Board found the most successful companies are doing to tackle the shortage of blue-collar workers:

  • Improving recruitment efforts such as adding or modifying employee referral programs, shortening the interview/hiring process, implementing new technology to screen employees and increasing social media usage;
  • Re-evaluating job requirements and relaxing hiring criteria; being more willing to train employees and accept those without experience;
  • Increasing training budget and investing more time in onboarding processes, online learning and tuition reimbursement programs;
  • Developing talent pipelines, whether with local high school or trade schools;
  • Make the company a better place to work by reducing overtime demands, increase flexibility, improve workplace environment and streamline burdensome or repetitive tasks;
  • Providing managers incentives for retaining employees;
  • Targeting demographic groups (such as women, minorities, immigrants, older workers, veterans) that they haven’t before for employment.

The important takeaway for our industry is that this doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. There may be some short-term relief if (when) a recession hits the economy, but that’s hardly something to look forward to. Long-term, the shortage is clearly going to be persistent, barring a major change in demographic and workforce trends.

Smart companies are going to need to tackle the problem, whether by using some of the ideas from the study or some of the great ideas in our coverage of the issue here at Boating Industry

Jonathan Sweet is the director of the Boating Industry Top 100  program and former editor-in-chief of Boating Industry magazine.  He can be reached at or 763-383-4419. Follow him on Twitter at @JonathanWSweet.

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