By MARA A. COHEN-MARKS

Wendy Estrada had occasional work cleaning houses when organizers at her church helped her enroll in Los Angeles community college. Within a few months, the 30-year-old mother of two had brushed up on her English and math, and earned her accreditation as a certified nursing assistant. Estrada just landed her first job as a home health aid, pulling in $15 an hour.

Not a moment too soon. The state's aging population will need more than 116,600 additional nurses by 2020. Health care's not the only industry scrambling for talent. California's infrastructure rebuilding plan, once it gets funded, could require 200,000 new construction workers. Anticipated billions in federal public works money would compound the demand. Likewise, increased reliance on renewable energy will require workers in energy manufacturing, construction and operations.

California's unemployment has careened to a 14-year high, but our skilled work force is heading off a cliff. Over the next two decades, the growth of the state's labor force will sink to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Even sectors with little job growth like plastics and civilian electronics face crippling deficiencies as workers retire or permanently switch occupations. In fact, economist Steve Levy estimates replacement openings will outnumber new jobs in California by 3 to 2 for the next decade.

Just look at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, whose workers are 50 years old on average. Half of the DWP's employees will be eligible to retire before 2020, leaving behind critical positions requiring years of training.

And though outsourcing and automation have eliminated thousands of jobs, a shortage of qualified machinists has manufacturers racing the clock to replace aging employees. "As skilled people leave the work force, we need to fill the pipeline," said Ned Lynch, an aerospace consultant.

Sure, many older workers will delay retirement, particularly those whose savings and home equity have taken hits in the current economic turmoil. Still, large-scale departures from the work force are inevitable. Those losses are coming up fast, with some 3 million California workers heading for the exits between 2010 and 2020. The exodus will continue apace through 2030.

Who will replace these older workers? As the wave of retirements crests, the number of workers between the ages of 35 and 54 will flatline. Nearly all the growth in California's labor force will come from our youngest, least trained and least experienced workers. Training this next generation must begin today to staunch an epic talent drain.

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