Five Scenarios for the Future of Recruiting VII: The Pandemic

Feb 25, 2010
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Spring 2010 conference-logoFor a nice overview of the scenario planning process and this project, take a listen to this podcast. Then, brace yourself. This scenario is somewhat disturbing.

The Pandemic

In the beginning, they thought it was the flu. As the school year started, complaints of fever and respiratory problems stretched the capacity of the health care system. Fall is a busy time in countries with relatively modern health care. This time was different.

As September dragged on, fatalities multiplied. By the middle of October, three million people, virtually all of them children, had died from the Pandemic. The desperate programs to create a working vaccine produced failure after failure.

In November, the American death toll was nine million. The rate was doubling each month. Other countries in the Northern hemisphere were experiencing similar levels of decimation of their children. The damage was smaller in the southern hemisphere because the health care and education infrastructure is less developed.

By Christmas, half of the school-age population, 18 million children, had succumbed to the mysterious disease. Fifteen million mourning families. Infrastructure overloaded beyond imagining.

As was the case with the early days of the H1N1 virus, hospitals, pharmacies, schools, and clinics turned out to be the primary disease vectors. By the time the health care system began to effectively respond, the virus disappeared.

Roughly half of the children between the ages of 6 and 16 died in the pandemic. Proportionally, it was smaller than the Spanish Flu epidemic of the early 20th Century.

A disturbing possible future. So far, the scenarios in this project have focused on external factors that require significant adaptation — not tear our hearts out. Yet, war, disease, civil unrest, famine, and natural disaster all have some real probability of interrupting our lives. This case, “The School-age Pandemic” is designed to get us to look at what happens when the society is disrupted and a significant portion of a population is ripped away.

The point of developing and using scenarios is to focus planning in the right places. Any forecast of the future is bound to be mistaken. Rather than trying to “get it right” by making a perfect forecast, scenario planning requires us look at and discover things that matter even if it is uncomfortable or, at first, unimaginable. Contemplating great changes give us the opportunity to see both our blind spots and the places where we should invest our energies.

We know for sure that the next 10 or 20 years will contain big surprises that force us to recalibrate. One way of thinking about history is that it is just a series of these big surprises that turn everything upside down. The purely disruptive nature of a possible pandemic can help us understand where our systems need fortification.

If you want to read more about the way unexpected things shape reality, Nicholas Taleb wrote an insightful book called The Black Swan. Examples include: Viagra, 9/11, Harry Potter, First World War, Beatles, the PC, Google, recent financial collapse, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the rise of any successful religion. History is dominated by sudden, lasting changes wrought by deeply unexpected events.

The Implications

Economic growth in the Northern hemisphere is driven by the two kinds of capital: financial and human. Population growth (which has the tendency to keep the average age of the population low) fuels economic growth when financial capital is available. Money is the fuse; population is the explosive. With less new human capital moving into the system, economic growth must be reconsidered.

Since the average age of most industrialized cultures is climbing (the U.S. remains a partial exception as long as immigration policies continue to liberalize), taking a large chunk out of the potential workforce would have a number of effects:

  • Anything resembling retirement as we know it would vanish immediately.
  • The competition for new workers would rapidly accelerate.
  • Employers would invest heavily in the training of new workers.
  • Bad hires and turnover would not be tolerated because of scarcity and expense of replacements.
  • Attention to quality in the hiring process would increase.
  • Workforce planning (how to make do with the available labor supply) would become a central strategy issue.
  • Time off to nurture and protect the remaining children would become immediately important.
  • Those who could continue to reproduce would be encouraged to do so (tax and other social incentives).

In a globally imbalanced case like this (high damage in the North, low damage in the South), an even greater emphasis on international outsourcing and recruiting would emerge. As we are learning, effective outsourcing requires a clear description of the required services and effective contract management on both sides. In the wake of the disaster, we would have to learn quickly to overcome the current hurdles for effective outsourcing. The Western trend to outsource non-strategic services allowing the company to focus on what differentiates it would expand.

Recruiting would also depend on international resources and immigration. Cultural and language adaptation would accelerate.

The use of scarce resources always requires careful attention to needs. Rationing can be formal or informal. Shortages teach us how to invest in and care for things that may have been taken for granted at other times. You could expect this change to result in:

  • More attention to education
  • Deeper involvement in onboarding
  • Extraordinary effort to guarantee that each new hire became productive and engaged.

The quick, back of the envelope, analysis focuses on three things:

  • Strengthening the accuracy of the hiring process’ estimates of a new hire’s success
  • An increased focus on outsourcing non-essential functions
  • A new emphasis on investment in the people of an organization.

This research is sponsored by Pinstripe Talent.

To read the rest of the series:

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.