America may have more jobs than it can fill after bulk of baby boomers retire

Posted: Friday, October 03, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) Not so long ago, Paul Kazmierczyk was underemployed as a steelworker. But by the time he's finished with nursing school in a few years, he's likely to have more job offers than he knows what to do with.

It's hard to imagine in a weak economy, but Kazmierczyk's changing fortunes point to a larger trend. The need for registered nurses, projected to top 800,000 over the next decade, is part of a broader job shortage in a variety of fields expected to develop as baby boomers retire.

Kazmierczyk, a boomer himself at 45, turned to nursing because it will offer more opportunities than the shrinking steel business he entered in 1988.

''For what I've been through these past 15 years, the ups and downs, I see this as the light at the end of the tunnel,'' said Kazmierczyk, of Johnstown, Pa.

Experts say that in the not-so-distant future, America will have more jobs than it can fill. The baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1965, reshaped the U.S. economy with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of highly educated workers. But their children are not numerous enough to replace them and researchers say a serious labor shortage lies ahead.

Over the next decades, the most pressing needs will be in the fields of education, transportation and health services, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the list of jobs dominated by workers over the age of 45 also includes airline pilots and navigators, postal workers, police officers and plumbers. Although many boomers are planning to work beyond the traditional retirement age in some capacity, they're likely to leave their full-time jobs.

By 2011, as the first boomers turn 65, available jobs could outnumber workers by 4.3 million, according to research by the Employment Policy Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. By 2031, that gap could widen to 35 million workers, the group says.

To help illustrate the impact of the baby boom, David Ellwood, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, points to the fact that the number of U.S.-born workers aged 25 to 54 grew by 44 percent in the last 20 years. But no growth is expected at all over the next 20 years, according to a report by the Aspen Institute. Any growth that does occur will have to come from older workers and immigrants, Ellwood said.

''We're on a knife edge,'' Ellwood said. ''If we look forward and think about it there are a lot of things we can do to deal with this, but if we do nothing, we could end with a much more polarized society, with much more inequality than we have now.''

The ''nightmare scenario'' would be to have a shortage of skilled workers that drives wages up dramatically for a small, highly educated group while keeping a larger number of lower skilled, mostly foreign-born workers at the bottom of the economy, Ellwood said. On the flip side, companies could start doing more to train workers who might not otherwise qualify for higher-skilled jobs. But it's not clear whether employers will take on that expense.

Some are hoping to solve the current nursing shortage by recruiting from abroad. Richard Somiari, a medical researcher in Windber, Pa., who was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, has helped lead an effort to recruit nurses from his country. With the help of a medical staffing agency in New York, his group hopes to recruit about 200 Nigerian nurses by next year.

''One thing about Nigerians is that they are pretty well exposed to different cultures, and English is the main form of communication,'' said Somiari, the chief science officer at the Windber Research Institute. In addition, the former British colony operates under a European education model that requires nurses to go through five years of training in academic research centers.

Meanwhile, U.S. nursing schools are scrambling to produce more graduates. But they are hampered by a shortage of nursing faculty and lower staffing levels at medical facilities, which limit the number of students who can be supervised and trained in a clinical setting.

''It's a really nasty Catch-22,'' said Ada Sue Henshaw, dean of the University of Michigan's school of nursing, where the undergraduate program is at full capacity with 581 students. ''Things are going to have to change. That baby boom population is not going to accept slipshod care.''

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