business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

One of my favorite quotes comes from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. During a particularly rough time in the early 1970s (Vietnam, Watergate, an Arab-Israeli conflict, the Cold War…) Kissinger said, “Next week there can’t be any crisis, my schedule is already full.”

Mr. Secretary, we know how you feel.

Wherever you are reading this today you are probably feeling a little overwhelmed. Inflation is back; economic news is upsetting; competition is raging on; consumers are cranky, food safety requires constant monitoring…fill in your list here. Well, sorry to bother you, but it’s time to think about a crisis about 10 years off.

Because of simple demographic realities, whatever company you are in is staring at a talent shortage. You probably have been hearing about this with more frequency on the news. The airlines, the military, local governments and school districts—it’s a topic for everyone. The facts are these: Because the enormous post-war Baby Boom generation is closing in on retirement age, the US (and some other countries by the way) are headed for a massive loss of top management, top performers, knowledge keepers and more.

What that means is that 64 million workers will be eligible for retirement in 10 years and already the government predicts there will be 10 million more jobs than people.

Luckily, there is a huge generation set to replace us—Gen Y—but the 70 million young people in that cohort are only partially in the work place and many are still in middle school. The real dilemma is that Generation X, the so-called baby bust years, are next in line and their numbers aren’t large enough to replace the Baby Boomers.

Jeff Noddle, the ever-insightful CEO of Supervalu, talked about this problem at a recent meeting of the Western Association of Food Chains (WAFC). His words bear careful consideration. As Noddle explained, the numbers create a dire situation because more than ever the food industry will be competing for a smaller than ever number of the best and brightest.

Which means the industry has to quickly get its act together on improving recruitment and retention. (Ok, there is a huge full disclosure statement you need here. I personally worked with Jeff on the plan to switch the FMI show to an education format every other year, beginning in 2009. And I continue to work with FMI on building that new event. Full disclosure aside, if I didn’t write about this issue I’d be doing you a disservice in this column. This is an issue that must not be ignored.)

This problem won’t be any easier to solve than inflation. The food industry already has a problem with a less than stellar reputation as a place to work. The hours are long and the work can be tough. The industry’s image is constantly (and usually incorrectly) damaged in popular culture. (Mr. Whipple didn’t help us look cool.)

The challenge we face today (and tomorrow) is finding a way to change all these with incredible speed. We need to improve the image as we train the people we currently have to move up to the higher levels of their companies. We need to sell the image of the industry’s importance as a place to work and in the fabric of every town. We need to emphasize the wonderful diversity of jobs and talents that are used in so many companies.

In short, we need to get cracking. Over the next few weeks, you are going to hear lots more about the new FMI 2009 event called Future Connect. Because of my personal connection, I won’t comment on the quality of the program and the importance of attending, because I think the event will speak for itself.

But I can say this, there’s another great historical quote reminding us that Noah didn’t start building the ark when it started raining. Usually, things go best when you act before the storm. That means now.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

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