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Catch This Wave and You Will Sit on Top of the World

Those who have recently spent $4 or more per gallon to fill up their gas tank have received an instant lesson on supply and demand. Employers across the country are about to receive a similar lesson, though the scarce commodity is not fossil fuels. It’s college graduates.

Most people already see the signs of an employment shortfall in some fields. At Juniata College, our faculty and career services experts see the need for more scientists, information technologists, physicians, teachers and government workers. Similarly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that “employment in science and engineering occupations will increase 70 percent faster that the overall growth rate for all occupations.”

On the horizon is something yet more compelling, a perfect storm that will benefit those who are well prepared to take advantage of a coming job market in dire need of qualified college graduates. In fact, there is probably no better time than today to invest in a higher education. Here’s why:

Each year about 1.3 million students graduate from college. Based on the declining number of high school graduates that number is not likely to grow over the next 8 years. At the same time the baby boom generation will start retiring in large numbers.

Never in our history has the nation faced a tsunami-size retirement wave with as few college graduates coming into the job market.

Between 1946 and 1964, 76 million people were born in the United States, compared to the 46 million people born into Generation X, the post-Boomer generation. If Boomer workers decide to retire in their 60s, about 10,000 Boomer workers will reach retirement age every day between 2008 and 2028.

Never in our history has the nation faced a tsunami-size retirement wave with as few college graduates coming into the job market.

The combination of massive retirements and fewer college graduates will leave a huge vacuum. Physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, in her report “The Quiet Crisis: Falling Short in Producing American Scientific and Technical Talent,” projected that “25 percent of the current science and engineering workforce will have retired by 2010.” NASA projects that by 2011 “28 percent of its engineers and 45 percent of its scientists will be eligible to retire.” Certainly it’s clear to NASA that we have a problem.

But there’s more to it. Retirement-aged people tend to be managers, strategic thinkers, and otherwise people with broad and diverse professional experiences—meaning Boomers leaving the workforce will leave a dearth of leadership. Today’s college students can prepare for those major demographic shifts in the job market, knowing that to compete for careers will mean having a college education to manage factors most of our forebears did not face: great leaps in biotechnology and issues related to its application, increasing reliance on information technology, the shift from corporate opportunity to entrepreneurial opportunity, awareness of environmental challenges and limitations, complex and dangerous conflicts throughout the world, and global interactions with clients, customers, users and others beyond our borders.

Students who have earned a broad-based education that prepares them to seek answers beyond what can be solved with a calculator will be best prepared to surf that retirement tsunami. Those who can apply lessons from sources as richly disparate as Plutarch, Archie Bunker or Bunker Hill to a business or technical solution (in other words, a liberal arts graduate) should not only find great jobs but also a chance to advance faster than at any time in recent history.

An education that does not anticipate how tomorrow’s college graduates can transform wide knowledge and experiences into meaningful professional, civic, and personal pursuits in such an environment essentially is failing them. I could here recite the common litany of the benefits of a liberal arts education and connect their relevance to business in particular. Instead I will cite a simple indicator that the Wall Street Journal reported in 2004: the two degrees most often held by executives of Fortune 500 companies are in engineering and liberal arts, in roughly equal measure. It is but one report, with concurrence happening each year in places ranging from The Economist to The Atlantic Monthly to Forbes.

The tide of opportunity is rolling in, as the Boomers roll out. The wake they leave, of leadership and management, means college graduates will be well prepared to seize the opportunity. As students plan now they should consider the liberal arts in their planning.

The coming Boomer retirement party indicates jobs will be available to those that have prepared carefully. Planning for an education that will provide you flexibility, depth, and challenging experiences is part of preparing carefully.

Thomas R. Kepple is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.