The Van Wert County Courthouse

Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023

Surviving after the Boomers retire

It may have happened faster than any of them expected, but the members of the famous generation known as the Baby Boomers are starting to retire. With them goes inestimable expertise and decades of on-the-job experience. What follows them is an enormous demographic problem which is the subject of a book by Mark Lautman titled When the Boomers Bail: A Community Economic Survival Guide.

Mr. Lautman worked on a large economic development project outside of Albuquerque years ago. The project was to create x number of jobs and y number of new businesses. There were plans for housing and infrastructure and everything that goes into creating a community from a barren field. All of the estimates fell into established guidelines of what to expect from such development. But well into the planning stages, Lautman discovered a critical problem: Where were they going to get the people to fill the jobs even if the businesses could be found?

By Van Wert County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum
By Van Wert County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum

Lautman’s subsequent research into nationwide trends and birthrates led him to a startling conclusion: There were not only not going to be enough qualified workers for the jobs they intended to create in Albuquerque, there weren’t going to be enough qualified workers in the entire United States once Baby Boomers started to retire.

Most people already have a sense of the change in manufacturing jobs over the last twenty years. Gone are the days when you could walk down the street after high school graduation and get a job at a factory where, if you were willing to work, you could earn a wage to support a family. Manufacturing jobs are becoming either highly skilled or lower paying – and many of the higher skilled jobs are currently filled by the soon-to-retire. These are the jobs Lautman describes as requiring “qualified workers.”

For multiple reasons, foremost among them falling birth rates and the misplaced focus of our education system, there are far too few qualified workers expected to enter the workforce in the next decade to replace the retiring Boomers. As a result, what businesses will be desperately seeking in the coming years are communities that can supply these workers.

Our local problem is heightened. Our demographics are off beyond the national averages that so vex Lautman. Our county’s steady population decline over the past two decades has been in the age groups under 50 leaving us with ever fewer kids graduating our high schools. Many of our large local employers indicate that they can’t find workers to fill open jobs. A “qualified worker” locally is becoming someone that can pass a drug test and show up on time.

In the last few months, there have been advertisements on WIMA radio for both Progressive Stamping in Ottoville and Kalida Manufacturing seeking general laborers. I know people who work at both of these companies and these are decent paying factories and decent jobs – not Ford, but certainly comparable with anything around here. There isn’t a workforce available for these jobs, much less the ones that require higher skills.

It would be easy to blast the next generation, but I’ll assume that this group will grow out of their adolescence just like the Boomers themselves did all those years ago and as us Gen Xers did more recently. But even assuming this eventuality, we still have on our hands the problem Lautman describes multiplied by an already decimated population of young people.

Ohio’s state development office currently supports a regional and statewide focus.  Such a focus will benefit only the areas in each region with the best amenities and available workforce. Columbus will likely do fine with its endless supply of qualified workers that emanate from the state university. Cleveland, Dayton and Cincinnati will be fine too. (Toledo hasn’t been fine in years.) But what of the rest of the state? Who sincerely believes that this is even a concern to our elected officials in Columbus?

Lautman points out that the old incentives to lure business – i.e. land and tax breaks – still have value, but almost every community in the nation now offers these. To attract, keep or generate a business in the next ten to twenty years, a community will have to be unique not in the incentives it provides but in the workforce it can supply.

Mr. Lautman will be speaking at a special session for local business that the Van Wert County Economic and Community Development Office has set up at Kennedy Kuhn’s new training center this coming Thursday afternoon. We hope to have a more open forum in the near future. If you have input on this issue or would like a copy of Mr. Lautman’s book, feel free to contact the County Development Office.

POSTED: 01/12/15 at 8:39 am. FILED UNDER: Opinions