Have you heard of the Gray Wave? Odds are your boss has, your human resources director has and so has your CEO. It’s not made of water. And it’s not political – it’s people. Specifically, Baby Boomers.
For years, America’s largest generation has remained employed, contributing to the workforce economy well past their retirement age, many of them working in trade industries long forgotten by a STEM- and technology-focused higher education. But experts predict the wave will soon crash. Over the next five years, three quarters of 143 human resources managers surveyed in 2018 by Willis Towers Watson – a risk-management and insurance brokerage company, in a paper circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research – reported their companies would face “significant or moderate challenges from late retirements.”
The survey respondents also said they were concerned about the cost of older workers, and the looming challenge of replacing the knowledge and skills retirees will take with them.
These concerns mirror a growing worry we’ve heard in Spokane and in communities across the United States: There’s simply not enough people in the education pipeline, from K-12 to community colleges and beyond, to replace our aging workforce.
Which is why institutions like Community Colleges of Spokane, able to quickly pivot to the needs of our evolving Eastern Washington industry, and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a national nonprofit focused on adult working learners will be so important in replacing what’s lost.
And why initiatives such as Washington state’s guided pathways, and our colleges’ unique relationships with industry leaders, including Greater Spokane Incorporated and the Washington Student Achievement Council, will help to increase the number of people with postsecondary credentials.
Hopefully, shoring the Gray Wave from causing too much damage.
Because, as if a workforce shortage wasn’t enough, data shows we’re headed toward a school enrollment cliff – both in high school and post-secondary. According to data from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, nationwide high school enrollment is predicted to decrease by about 8% between 2025 and 2031, after a record enrollment year in 2024.
Whether future generations will follow this trend is anyone’s guess. But currently, millennials and Generation X just simply aren’t having as many babies as their parents and grandparents. That’s a huge problem for industry.
While Washington state – and indeed other states in the Pacific Northwest – will likely eschew this downward enrollment trend, either growing or remaining neutral, data shows, we can’t and shouldn’t sit idly by, unprepared for the next wave of enrollment decreases in our neck of the woods.
In meetings with Avista Utilities, Eastern Washington’s leading energy company, for example, the conversation is not only centered around a Gray Wave – it’s focused on the future of energy, and how prepared we are to train the next generation of workers.
Similar conversations are taking place with the region’s leading industries: manufacturing, health and IT, to name a few. All industry leaders express the need for new approaches and new models to address skill shortages quickly and effectively, especially since Boomers won’t be the last generation to work longer across their lifetime.
A community college’s primary role is to serve the community. In CAEL’s and CCS’ case, that maybe means taking a step back from pushing a transfer degree to a four-year university and instead tooling our messaging around training and certificates that get people in and out, and on their way to a new career in a trade.
After all, those careers are still lucrative. And they’re the ones likely to be hit hardest by retirement over the next several years.
Through Guided Pathways – a push from the Washington Legislature to transform the student experience with clear guidance to meet student career goals, employment, outlook and continued education – both Spokane Community College and Spokane Falls Community College are well poised to increase student success levels.
We hope that momentum continues to bring us face-to-face with local industry leaders, where the conversations can continue. In the past, it’s worked: just look at the success of our truck driver training certificate and our certificate program in machining/computer numeric controlled technology.
It’s not a single “silver bullet” that will save us from the workforce shortage cliff. Rather, a sustained and strategic action to respond to a new environment with urgency and effectiveness.
Christine Johnson is the chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane. Marie Cini is the president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
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