Engaging with the emerging workforce early can help avoid skill shortages as the Baby Boomers begin to retire en-masse writes Mark Gillard

For 25 years I've been putting school students, school leavers, job seekers and graduates in touch with their futures. Around 800.000 young people, give or take. Reflecting on the industry at this quarter century juncture, two things stand out: the biggest change and the biggest issue.

The biggest change I've witnessed has been the breadth of career choices available to young people -- many many more options than in my day. In terms of the biggest issue, I see this as matching the real needs of industry with the development of our young people -- the need to bridge the gap between the skills and experience of the retiring Baby Boomers with Generations X and Y below them.

I'm a Baby Boomer. The first of this cohort reached retirement age in 2011 and though it's increasingly common for over-65s to continue to work (22 per cent of Kiwis aged 65-plus were in full-time or part-time employment in 2013 up from 16.8 per cent in 2006 and 11.4 per cent in 2001), it's unlikely they'll continue to do so forever, which means planning for their replacement is essential. This retirement en-masse is an issue with the potential to create significant disruption in the labour market, not only in New Zealand, but around the world.

Recent research by recruitment firm Robert Half found 96 per cent of Kiwi CFOs and financial directors foresee a potential skills gap due to the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation.


And 85 per cent of these same finance leaders are concerned that the loss of the Baby Boomers will have a negative impact on their company in the next two years -- a very short horizon indeed.

When asked what measures they were taking to counter the potential skills gap, the respondents pointed to hiring mid-level talent to develop a skills pipeline; enhancing employee benefits to retain Baby Boomers; and increasing training and professional development programmes.

These initiatives are to be commended. However, I think we need to go further and look beyond the existing pipeline i.e. those already in the workforce, and focus on the emerging pipeline today's senior students and recent school leavers.

In my view, the answer lies in connecting employers and industry with the emerging workforce early and in a meaningful way. Connecting employers with young people early is important if we want to inspire them along certain pathways, particularly those where skills shortages are already identified.

Experience tells us that the more effort employers put into engaging with job seekers early, the better the outcome for the labour market.

Employer engagement with students and job seekers sounds like a management buzzword, but it's more than just a hollow phrase. It will mean different things to different people, but it's more than scholarships and graduate programmes, although these remain important.

I define it for employers as putting themselves on show. It's not only profiling your company, but promoting your industry and if you do it via the platform provided at an expo, you'll be exposed to a cross section of job seekers.

I encourage employers large and small to have career conversations with the future workforce, because nothing beats hearing it from the horse's mouth.

One of the best examples is putting employees in front of students and letting them explain their job in their own words. Having these career conversations early means we can steer students down certain pathways that are known to have shortages on the horizon. And getting in early also ensures good decisions can be made to maximise the investment students make in education from both a time and a financial perspective.

That's why I applaud the MBIE Occupational Outlook report and the associated website resources. The report provides students and job seekers with unbiased information about job demand, likely income levels and training requirements for different career pathways in an easy-to-use format. Parents would do well to familiarise themselves with this and the vocational pathways work the Ministry of Education produces.

I see my role as helping to bridge the gap between the world of learning and the world of work. It helps to create better graduates and also makes the recruitment process a more positive experience for Kiwi employers.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I would add that this extends through the school years to seeing them into the world of work. I view the Career Expo as a supportive wrap to help young people transition to the workforce and in turn become a valuable part of the New Zealand economy.

Mark Gillard is the director of the NZ Careers Expo, which operates in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch and which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.