How to deal with the shortage of first-line supervisors

For the past several years, I have been presenting information pertaining to the four generations in today's workplace and their impact on businesses now and in the foreseeable future. The familiar story is that Boomers are leaving the workplace faster than Millennials are entering and since the GenX'ers are fewer in number than either group, we have a worker shortage that will continue to grow for the next few years.

Enter the recent economic problems widely reported everywhere and you might think that the worker shortage problem has ended. Probably not.

If Boomers decide to keep working longer to recover some financial security, it may slow the worker shortage to some degree. What is not known at this time is how Millennials entering the workforce will react to a first in their working lifetimes fewer or no jobs. Recent indications are that many of this generation will stay in school longer to obtain additional degrees or certifications. If those choosing to continue their education approach the number of Boomers continuing to work, the shortage will loom unchanged.

Regardless of what happens in the worker shortage arena, there is another problem of clear and present concern to businesses and government a growing lack of first-line supervisors. According to

American Management Association International, a first-line supervisor is an individual who oversees others charged with completing a process a company or other organization uses to deliver product to its customers. These individuals are the go-betweens who interpret management dictates to other workers and who bring worker concerns to management.

These supervisors must also know and understand all organizational operation functions and insure workers perform to expectations. When problems occur, supervisors are expected to take whatever disciplinary actions necessary to solve the problems up to and including recommendations for dismissal. Overall, first-line supervisor jobs have been relatively unchanged for the past several decades. And that's where the problem lies.

Many younger workers whose job growth patterns might indicate a chance to advance to supervisory level positions are passing on the opportunities. Senior management offers to these people including greater responsibilities, salary and benefit increases and additional future advancement are more and more frequently being met with a repeated, no thank you. Why?

As has been well documented, many workers under the age of 35 participated in group events while growing up that emphasized team effort and rewards to the many rather than the few. They often feel themselves as one of equals rather than the head of the group.

Therefore, when faced with the opportunity to lead the group, many in the younger generations become uncomfortable and decline the leadership role and thus the organizations in which they work face a growing shortage in their operations structure.

Is this a short-term problem or an indication of something worse still to come? If businesses and governments are operating under the "we've always done it this way" philosophy in choosing supervisors, can they change their methods? Will they change? Who's right and who's wrong?

As with most workforce issues, there is no right or wrong answer, there

just is. Tied in with the ongoing worker shortage mentioned above, this lack of supervisory desire in the younger workforce will require change between all involved parties.

Older managers will need to understand and appreciate how younger workers think in order to communicate and translate company needs to them. Leadership skills might have to be presented in a different manner. Younger workers will need to be educated as to the benefits strong leadership can bring to any group. They must be asked how they would solve given problems and then presented feedback as to whether or not their solutions are workable within an organization's structure and culture.

Senior managers must avoid the knee-jerk reaction of dismissing an idea or proposal on leadership out of hand. They must remember that life is not one-dimensional and when others see a problem from a different perspective, they often will have a reaction different from the traditional.

Younger workers must realize that complex organizations, including our broad society, need structure and definition for optimal functioning.

Supervision of others is an intregal part of said structure and most individuals look for some degree of leadership, especially at work.

When faced with the need to grow more first-line supervisors, companies should review current procedures to determine if such procedures need to be updated or changed. Will the organization pay for leadership training? Are there rewards available for someone who accepts a supervisor position? Can the individual fail in the new position and not be punished? Will that individual get his/her previous position back if necessary?

Answering these types of questions in a proactive manner will help every organization seeking first-line supervisors. Succession plans can be implemented when newly eager individuals receive proper supervisory training. Businesses will maintain a competent workforce that will enable success to be more easily achieved. The changes that will occur after this training will help everyone trying to compete in the 21st century economy.

Our economy will emerge from its current down cycle sooner or later. Don't wait until the recovery is passing your organization by to train your best workers. Some of them will become your best supervisors if managed properly. Use this economic lull to your benefit. Train your new supervisors now. Mentor them today so that tomorrow, you will know your workforce is the best ever!

Tom Fitzgerald is chief executive officer of Nevadaworks.


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