The threat of the Y2K computer bug is over for most American businesses, but the 21st century poses a different problem for companies: a shortage of workers.
"Major labor trends in the new millennium will have a significant impact on productivity and absenteeism in the workplace, led by the anticipated shortage of approximately 2 million skilled workers by 2006," said Joseph F. Braunstein, senior vice president of CIGNA IntegratedCare, the unit within CIGNA Corp., that provides benefits plans to employers.
According to CIGNA, the workplace of the 21st century will be characterized by several major trends, including:
- an aging workforce, with the oldest Baby Boomers turning 60 by 2006;
- increasing numbers of women and single parents, with women joining the workforce at twice the rate of men; and
- increasing ethnic and cultural workforce diversity, with Hispanics and Asians making up the fastest growing segment of the workforce, increasing the communication and training issues for many organizations.
It won't be easy for companies to keep the new labor force productive and on the job.
"As companies face even greater competition in attracting skilled workers and retaining valued employees, employee commitment will not come strictly from what employers pay, but employers will be judged on how well they allow employees to balance work and personal time," said Braunstein.
When employers institute work-life programs and paid time-off plans, rather than specific allotted time for "sick leave," both have a positive effect on reducing last minute absences by employees, Braunstein explained.
CIGNA said employee exhaustion will become a major problem. This will lead to a greater risk of disability for those workers who are raising families on their own, caring for elderly parents, or who are left to cover for coworkers who are out.
"Often, because of seniority, older workers survive downsizing and are left to carry the balance of the workload," said Braunstein. "These workers are at risk not only for short-term absences, but fatigued and stressed employees are more at risk for accidents and illnesses."
So, how do you keep you employees and your business healthy into the next century?
CIGNA said the ability to track absences and reasons for time off is a critical first step to keeping employees at work and measuring their effectiveness.
To promote return to work, companies also need to understand the importance of early intervention, said Braunstein.
Businesses should recognize the value of returning disabled employees to work. "It will be to a company's benefit to retain these employees rather than replace them and lose time and money to find new employees and then bring them up to speed," said Braunstein.
The disabled represents a huge untapped labor pool, according to Braunstein.
A recent study by the University of Texas found that 62 percent of organizations that employ telecommuters with disabilities had such favorable results that they would recommend hiring a new employee with a disability and allowing him to being telecommuting immediately.
"Understanding how to harness the work potential of the disabled can greatly assist organizations in filling the shortage of skilled workers in the 21st century," said Braunstein.