A baggage handler uses a cart to help load a...

A baggage handler uses a cart to help load a Delta Airlines jetliner at a gate at Denver International Airport, Denver,Tuesday, as the Labor Day holiday approaches. Credit: AP/David Zalubowski

For would-be vacationers, this has been the summer of our discontent. In the wake of the pandemic, severe staffing shortages have triggered a crush of disruption: Flight cancellations abound while check-in lines snake out the terminal door. Travelers wonder when the chaos will abate.

But what if this isn’t just a temporary hiccup? This summer’s air travel meltdown could well be the canary in the coal mine for the labor shortages we may soon experience across the economy as boomers retire, population growth slows and training lags. To avoid further shortages, we must rethink how we invest in workers and start planning ahead.

Across sectors, today’s problems have been a long time coming. For those who think travel headaches are simply the product of pent-up wanderlust, consider this: According to the labor market analytics firm Lightcast, job openings for pilots have grown 72% since 2016 while the number of pilots at work has grown only 12%, a profound gap that demonstrates just how many jobs are going unfilled.

Similar gaps are apparent across fields. Over the past five years, growth in demand for registered nurses has outpaced growth in supply tenfold, while job openings for electrical engineers have grown three times faster than the available workforce.

Meanwhile, in many fields, a wave of impending retirements threatens to overwhelm the ability of colleges to graduate new talent. For example, even as supply chain disruption widens, twice as many logisticians exit the field annually as earn relevant degrees. Recession may cool demand for a time, but the long-term trend is clear.

Shortages in high-skill roles, such as pilots, are especially hard to resolve. It takes many years to train a pilot. Early in the pandemic, as air travel came to a standstill, airlines cut almost half of their pilots. Now, as demand for air travel roars back, there isn’t a store of qualified pilots waiting on the sidelines and there’s no prospect of bringing more to market anytime soon.

Airlines are raising wages dramatically. Two American Airlines affiliates recently announced that they would double pay. That may entice fresh talent to the field, but new pilots won’t be flight-ready anytime soon. For now, all airlines can do is compete with one another for those already in the cockpit. That’s good for pilots but doesn’t clear the shortage.

This same lag between demand and supply plays out across the labor market. Amid surging cyber threats, companies are bulking up on people with the skills to protect data and networks, with job postings up 70% since 2017. But a key qualification for cybersecurity work, Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification, requires five years’ experience. That’s a long time to wait for more workers.

There are two ways to address long lead times: better preparedness on the part of employers and greater responsiveness in the way that colleges and training providers ready new workers.

Employers take up an ages-old “can’t find good help these days” complaint but much of the solution to this rising crisis rests with them. Since the 1960s, companies have taken an increasingly transactional approach to labor, hiring and firing at will to match business shifts. That works for firms only so long as workers are widely available and quickly trained. But the kind of highly skilled work that pilots and cybersecurity engineers do comprises a growing share of today’s economy.

Employers need a new, longer-term mindset. That means considering the workforce as a relationship, not just a transaction — one that is less disposable and more enduring through ups and downs. A more invested relationship involves helping workers keep their skills fresh. Investing in skills training is good both for workers and for companies themselves, ensuring that the workforce they have remains the one they need as technologies obsolete at a startling rate.

Companies also need a longer-term mindset in considering future needs. Most plan production schedules and supply chains multiple quarters in advance but have no comparable talent plan, relying instead on the vagaries of the market to deliver skilled workers just in time. Too often they come up short.

But we need not take as given the long time frames currently required to develop new talent. For our workforce to be more agile, training itself must become more responsive. We need to consider ways to make each credential faster and more accessible. Are all current requirements still relevant? Much demand for CISSP certification is driven by federal mandate rather than actual need. Training that builds on workers’ existing skills saves time vs. training up from scratch. Airlines such as United and JetBlue have been investing in new training academies to accelerate the path to the cockpit and draw a more diverse pool of pilots.

Labor shortages need not be a permanent reality but avoiding them will take a shift in approach. Good talent, like anything else worthwhile, takes time. New training models can ready new workers more quickly, but there’s no dodging the need to plan ahead. From airlines to hospitals, companies that invest in workers for the long haul will steer clear of the turbulence that lies ahead.

Matt Sigelman is president of The Burning Glass Institute, a leading labor market research center, and chairman of Lightcast. Ken Mehlman is a partner at KKR and was the 62nd chairman of the Republican National Committee and a Lightcast board member.

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