Closing the Skills Gap | AIChE

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Closing the Skills Gap


The workplace has changed and will continue to change as older workers retire and new generations take their place. Companies will need to adapt to retain and foster the necessary technical know-how.

This article is based on a paper and presentation from the 2017 AIChE Spring Meeting in San Antonio, TX.

The 20th century saw the active participation of three primary generations in the workforce. These generations were generally organized into a hierarchy — older workers were the managers and younger workers toiled under their leadership. The workplace of today, however, has become increasingly complex, comprised of workers from four or five different generations. The World Economic Forum reports that by 2025, 75% of the workforce will be Millennials (1), who bring unique perspectives on the workplace and society.

Companies in the chemical process industries (CPI) must attract and retain technical staff to be successful. However, because of a demographic gap, these companies must overcome a chasm in the talent pipeline for mid-career professionals. Organizations need to benchmark senior talent capabilities to determine a sustainable solution for closing this gap and retaining technical skill sets. As the personal focus, interests, and overall demands of generations evolve, this becomes a greater challenge.

It is critically important for companies not only to understand the dynamics of the changing workforce but also to establish organizational structures and programs that adjust to meet the changes in the technical workforce of the future. This process needs to start now because significant changes have already begun. Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that the oil and gas industry will experience the departure of about 22,000 petrotechnical professionals over the next five years in North America, while attracting about only 17,000 technical professionals (2). Even accounting for the impact of technological efficiencies on increased productivity and operational capability, the industry will have a 20% deficit in technical staffing. The solution is to not only accelerate technical skill development but to also provide a viable career proposition to attract new talent and create a diverse and growing workforce.

Generation profile

A generation is a group of people born around the same time and considered collectively. Each generation is thought to exhibit similar characteristics, such as preferences for communication methods, consumer habits, and motivations, and have experienced similar trends at approximately the same stage of life and through similar channels (e.g., online, TV, mobile, etc.). Trends are most influential as people come of age, which means that members of a particular generation develop and share similar values, beliefs, and expectations. It is important to remember that at an individual level, people are different and everyone has unique preferences, values, beliefs, and expectations. However, a generational lens can help to evaluate and understand how to reach, inform, and influence certain segments of a population. The three key trends that shape generations are parenting, technology, and economics (3).

Employers will need to adjust to each generation’s widely divergent characteristics and idiosyncrasies. This is a tremendous challenge, but it begins with understanding the attitudes and requirements of all the generations.

This article uses a generational timeline applicable to North America. The generations in the current workforce are broadly generalized as the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. (The range of dates for each generation varies based on reference.)

The Silent Generation (born mid-1920s to early-to-mid-1940s). Although not strong in numbers, members of this generation are still active in the workplace. The Silent Generation grew up during a time of economic downturn and war, giving rise to traits such as diligence, pragmatism, and risk aversion. Women mostly worked in the home or held positions as teachers, nurses, or secretaries. Men were company loyalists and generally kept their jobs for life.

Baby Boomers (born between mid-1940s to early-to-mid-1960s). Boomers, one of the largest generations, defined the American workplace for many years with their live-to-work attitudes. Boomers were born after the end of World War II, during a time of prosperity and social change. They are characterized as optimistic, driven, and team-oriented. Women of this generation started to work outside of the home and in positions traditionally held by men — a momentous cultural shift. Boomers ushered in other cultural changes. They were some of the first to raise children with two working parents, have televisions, accept divorce as a tolerable reality, and begin to accept diversity in race and sexual orientation. Boomers are still in the workforce in substantial numbers but many are approaching retirement.

Generation X (born between mid-1960s and early-1980s). Generation X bridges two much larger and noisier generations, as well as the technological transition to the omnipresence of computers and the internet. They are more committed to self than an organization or a specific career, and may work for many different companies during their lifetime. Generation X started the transition to marrying and having children later in life, as well as helped to further normalize divorce (4).

Millennials (born between early-1980s and mid-1990s). Millennials make up the largest portion of the workforce today. They are largely comfortable with technology and media and are often characterized as seeking instant gratification and constant feedback, as well as having a social conscience. In the workplace, they are more comfortable with a flat corporate structure and arrangements that enable work-life balance. Millennial attitudes toward employment, sales, and marketing are challenging many conventional strategies and approaches. To attract and retain Millennials, employers should consider providing state-of-the-art equipment, workplace flexibility, continuous learning opportunities, increased transparency, and mentoring and coaching.

Generation Z (born between mid-1990s and mid-2000s). Members of this generation have grown up with the internet and mobile devices from a young age. They value individuality and diversity and share many of the same traits as Millennials. However, members of Generation Z grew up in a post-9/11 world and, as a result, are increasingly anxious and mindful of the future. They are currently the majority in college and will be entering the workforce soon.

Working together

Several different and distinct generations are currently working side by side (5), and their differences have started to put pressure on the workplace to adapt....

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