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Exploring Succession Planning

Rothwell addresses some of the challenges facing the U.S. workforce, particularly a succession planning crisis.

By William J. Rothwell, Professor of Workforce Education and Development


Amid the national challenges of foreign wars, economic distress, and health care crises, the U.S. faces a more silent crisis—a succession planning crisis. What creates this crisis? What exactly is succession planning? Why is important? What can be done about it? This short article answers these questions.


What Creates This Crisis?

Most people have heard that Baby Boomers are nearing retirement. In fact, at this time, 1 in 5 of all senior executives in the Fortune 500 are eligible to retire; 50 percent of the entire workforce of the U.S. government is retirement eligible; high percentages of schoolteachers and college professors are over age 50; and many healthcare workers are over age 50. After years of cost cutting (and staff cuts) in all sectors of the economy, those prepared to take their places are few and far between. Additionally, concerns about terrorism prompt many organizational leaders to do disaster planning in case of the sudden, catastrophic loss of many or all organizational employees.

Nor is the aging workforce an issue limited to the U.S. alone. All the countries involved in World War II face the same challenge. Even China, the most populous nation on earth, faces an aging workforce that may lead to labor shortages in the future.


What Exactly Is Succession Planning?

Succession planning is about an employer committing to developing employees inside the organization to meet future challenges and (potentially) more challenging responsibilities in the future. It is a systematic process by which people are identified to be developed for the future. Typical steps in succession planning include (Rothwell, 2005): (1) committing to succession planning; (2) identifying what kind of work and what kind of people the organization has now; (3) reviewing the work performance and competencies of the current workforce; (4) planning for the profiles of ideal performers at all levels in the future to meet strategic objectives; (5) assessing individual potential for promotion; (6) planning for on-the-job and off-the-job development to narrow gaps between what individuals have and what they need to be promotable; and (7) evaluating the program.


Why Is This Crisis Important?

The challenges of the future will demand special talent. Organizational leaders can no longer assume that they can meet all labor requirements by “going outside” to hire someone. A day will come soon when there are not enough people trained to meet future challenges in all industries and in most nations.


What Can Be Done About the Crisis?

Organizational leaders need to commit to planned succession planning programs in which they plan for future talent needs and how to meet them. Many organizations are doing that now, even as (paradoxically) the unemployment rate in the U.S. is on the increase. What is needed is a closer match between what employers need and what the available workers can do.


About the Author

William J. Rothwell, Ph.D., SPHR is Professor of Workforce Education and Development on the University Park campus. He is part of the Industrial Training option, focused on preparing people for opportunities as trainers in businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. He has authored numerous books, including Effective Succession Planning (2005), Career Planning and Succession Management (2005), and a pending casebook on governmental succession planning. His most recent books are titled, Human Resource Transformation and Linking Workforce Development to Economic Development: A Casebook for Community Colleges. His newest book is about tapping the retiree base to meet talent shortages, and is titled Working Longer: New Strategies for Managing, Training and Retaining Employees (in press, due out in 2008).