Baby Boomer Exodus Puts Many Industries at Risk

Baby Boomers make up more of the U.S. work force -- 38 percent -- than any other age group, and even with the recession forcing many to delay retirement a few years, the first Boomers will turn 65 in 2011 and will begin retiring.

That will be the beginning of a retirement boom over the next five years, giving businesses some lead time to capture that departing knowledge and giving younger workers in industries crowded with Boomers room to move up, said Ken Ball, co-author with Gina Gotsill of the new book 'Surviving the Baby Boomer Exodus.'

The oil and gas industry, for example, is one growth area because Generation Y, the kids of Boomers, don't want jobs requiring them to be away from home a lot, according to the book. Older geologists and rig managers are staying on the job longer without younger workers to replace them.

The manufacturing industry is another area where Boomers make up a large percentage of the work force. The industry suffers from an image problem, with young people describing it as an "assembly line" and saying a career there is like "serving a life sentence," according to the book.

-- See average salaries for jobs in the following industries: manufacturing, utilities, and oil and gas.

"Negative perceptions and image problems make industries such as utilities, oil and gas producers and marketers, and manufacturing especially vulnerable to impending Boomer retirements," the authors write. "These industries aren't drawing the people who might replace mature workers as they step away. Systemic losses, such as hiring practices and cost-cutting, compound the problem and have created an environment where knowledge gaps could impact operations."

Other areas where Boomers are expected to leave include education, health care and government jobs -- basically industries where people tend to stay a long time once hired.

Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, and are 46 to 65 years old. The book details how to capture their work knowledge before they retire, a process that can take a few hours to many months, depending on the job skills and if the knowledge is tacit or implicit. Tacit knowledge, such as explaining how to ride a bike, can take a lot more time.

Without transferring that information, businesses will lose their level of leadership and skilled trade levels could drop off, Ball said in a telephone interview. Other downsides include lost productivity, a competitive disadvantage, disruption in service, and re-creating the wheel at work, he said.

-- See average salaries for workers aged 44 to 65.

The culture of the company and how much employees are valued play big parts in whether a retiring worker's knowledge is shared. Mentoring programs are needed.

"If you don't have that culture, they're going to say, 'Why in the hell should I share my information? What's in it for me?'" Ball said.

For the employer and upcoming employees, a lot is at stake.

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