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How CEOs Can Master The Labor Jigsaw Puzzle

Two puzzle pieces being held together
Tips for success in a tricky talent market: ‘As a CEO, you are far more than a resume collector. You're a vision builder for everyone you oversee.’

When I think about our tight labor market, I return to the puzzles I love to solve on our kitchen table. It takes such attention to snap it all together, but I love the challenge.

Today’s CEOs face a grand, complex labor jigsaw, and the pieces keep changing shape. Just when we think we’ve figured it out, we see gaps we can’t fill. And this puzzle is bearish.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects major demographic shifts already impacting the job market. Baby Boomers, the generation that has been the backbone of our workforce for decades, are retiring en masse. Gen Z is entering the workforce, but they don’t have the numbers to fill the void left by the exiting Boomers. The labor force participation rate, which measures the percentage of the working-age population that is either employed or actively seeking employment, has been on a downward trend for years. In 2000, it was at 67.3 percent, but by 2022, it had dropped to 62.2 percent. And it’s expected to keep dropping, with projections suggesting it could fall to 60.4 percent by 2032. We’re talking about millions of workers just vanishing from the job market.

But it’s not just a numbers game. There’s a qualitative shift happening, too. As more of the population ages, we’ll see a huge demand for healthcare workers. The surge in demand for healthcare services will pull even more people out of other industries. It’s like trying to complete a puzzle when the pieces keep disappearing right before your eyes.

So, what do we do? How do we ensure our puzzle picture comes together, even as the pieces keep shifting? The key is to adopt a truly holistic approach to hiring and retention. We can’t just try to jam a piece where it doesn’t fit and hope for the best.

Think Long-term

First off, we need to think long-term. Rather than just looking for the piece we need to fill an immediate vacancy, we should constantly shape and cultivate potential pieces, even if we don’t need them immediately. It’s like how a sculptor sees the potential in a raw block of marble. They don’t just start chiseling away, hoping the right shape emerges. They have a vision in mind and work deliberately towards shaping the marble to fit that vision. We need to take the same approach with our workforce. We must identify promising individuals early on, even as early as high school or college, and start nurturing those relationships.

I’m talking about getting our best people out there in front of the next generation. Have them talk to students, attend job fairs, attend community events and ask teachers about students. Show students what a future with your company could look like. Paint a picture of the impact they could have, the skills they could develop and the career they could build. Expand your internship programs, giving young people a taste of what it’s like to work with you and to be part of your culture. And when you spot those standout kids—the ones with curiosity, grit and a stellar work ethic—don’t wait for them to come to you. Reach out to them, inviting them to join your journey.

Of course, there’s a lot of buzz around AI and automation as the solution to our labor woes. And that’s part of the equation. These technologies are potent tools that can help you work smarter and more efficiently. They can take over routine tasks, freeing employees for more complex, creative work. They can help you analyze vast amounts of data to make better decisions. But they’re not the whole story. They’re not a magic bullet that will solve all your labor challenges.

Human Imagination

The human imagination still rules—the ability to look at a problem from a different angle, to see possibilities where others see dead ends. Seek out employees who are excited about the potential of AI and automation and are always looking for new ways to harness these tools to drive innovation. But more than that, you need people who can think beyond the tools. Who can ask the right questions? Who can envision entirely new ways of doing things?

Also, consider expanding your definition of where a puzzle piece might come from. Historically, employers were limited to the talent pool that’s immediately available to us, usually defined by geographic proximity. But the rise of remote work has fundamentally changed that. For many roles, location has become irrelevant. If a job can be done from anywhere with an internet connection, why limit yourself to local candidates? By strategically leveraging global hiring, you can find the perfect fit for your puzzle, no matter where they happen to be. It’s not about replacing local talent, but about augmenting it, finding the best person for the job, regardless of where they call home.

But even as you expand your horizons and look for talent in new places, don’t lose sight of the fundamentals. Pay attention to the pieces of the puzzle that are already in place, your current employees. Retention is just as important as recruitment. When an employee is thriving in their role and contributing to your mission, make sure they stay put. That means investing in their development and providing opportunities for growth and advancement while showing recognition and appreciation for their good work. It means proactively addressing any issues or concerns before they become reasons for someone to leave.

Look at your communications. How often are you conducting a temperature check and getting a read on what your employees feel? What’s truly bothering them? Just as you solve your clients’ or customers’ problems, consider yourself a problem solver for your employees, too, and you’ll earn loyalty.

Employees have options, so give them reasons to choose you every day. And that starts with making sure your puzzle is one they want to be a part of, one that aligns with their values and aspirations.

Stay True

Speaking of values, that’s another crucial piece of this puzzle. Throughout this, stay true to what you are as a company. Your core values can’t just be words on a wall or a page in an employee handbook. They have to be the guiding light for every decision you make, every action you take. Whether local or global, the most sought-after candidates are drawn to organizations with a strong ethical compass. They want to be part of a company that stands for something beyond just the bottom line. They want to know that their work contributes to something meaningful, something larger than themselves.

So, even as you adapt to new realities, even as you embrace new strategies and technologies, keep sight of the fundamental things that make your company unique. Your mission, vision, values—these are the things that will continue to attract the right people to your puzzle, the ones who will help you build something truly remarkable.

Navigating this new labor landscape isn’t easy. It requires a shift in mindset and a willingness to challenge old assumptions and try new approaches. It requires investment, not just in terms of money but also in terms of time, energy and focus. It requires a commitment to putting people first, to recognizing that human capital is your most valuable asset. As a CEO, you are far more than a resume collector. You’re a vision builder for everyone you oversee.

With a comprehensive, human-focused approach, you can assemble a team ready for the future. It’s a complex puzzle, but piecing it together can be such a joy. That’s your job, Mr. or Ms. CEO. I hope you love it as much as I do! When we employ the right tools, what pretty pictures we make, right?


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