It took over a year for Watchfire Signs, a maker of digital billboards in Danville, Ill., to fill a VP of sales position and nine months to nab a director of marketing. "Finding the right people is much more difficult than you would expect in this economy," says Randy Berg, the company's vice president for human resources.
Even as the unemployment rate hovers well above 8 percent, many experts report a growing gap in one key sector of workers—business's top ranks. "It's totally counter-intuitive," says business consultant David DeLong, coauthor of The Executive Guide to High-Impact Talent Management. "There is an increasingly critical shortage of executives qualified to lead complex, growing organizations."
Some 25 percent of the 330 human resources pros polled in a new survey by Deloitte Consulting say that a shortage of qualified talent is their foremost concern. And while almost half of the nearly 1,300 respondents to Price Waterhouse Cooper's 2012 CEO survey said they were confident about the prospects for growth, only 30 percent believed they had the talent on board to lead it. "The challenge of finding the right people is our No. 1 inhibitor of growth," says Tony DiBenedetto, chairman and CEO of Tribridge, a Tampa-based IT services and business consulting firm.
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The shortage is partly a function of demographics. As baby boomers on the top rungs retire, there are not enough generation Xers (born from 1965 to 1980) to take their place. "That group is 30 million people smaller than the generation ahead of them," says DeLong. According to one study, he says, candidates in the age bracket that normally fills leadership roles are expected to drop 30 percent by 2015.
At the same time, the leadership pipelines in many organizations today are producing barely a trickle. "The need for succession planning caught companies by surprise," says Brian McGowan, executive vice president and managing director in Atlanta of the Chicago-based executive search firm DHR International. "Now there is a void as the senior level professionals age out."
Many executive recruiters and coaches see the trend as a boon for managers looking to move up the ladder. "The market for top talent is only going to get hotter," says Delong. How can you position yourself for an upward move?
Groom yourself to lead. "The biggest mistake I witness regarding promotions is that high-potential candidates wait for job openings, then apply for the position and start prepping for it," says Sarah Hathorn, CEO and founder of Illustra Consulting in Atlanta, which provides executive coaching and leadership development expertise to companies.
Slimmed-down, budget-minded employers can't afford to put people in high-powered positions and train them, Hathorn says. They expect "little or no learning curve when it comes to such things as your executive presence, your ability to build high-performance teams, and your knack for identifying talent in the raw and developing it."
That doesn't sound like you just yet? A career coach can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, and how to develop your leadership creds and buff your image. Another idea gaining traction: Seek out executives you admire and ask them how they got there, job by job. This "backward career mapping" can allow you to better chart a course for your own rise.
If you work for a large company, it can be useful to talk with someone in succession planning, often a role of human resources. "Tell them you are interested in becoming an executive and would like feedback on things you need to be learning to reach that goal," advises Mary Key, head of Key Associates, Inc., a leadership development consulting firm in Tampa.
[Read: 22 Ways to Be a Better Boss.]
Then start acting like the leader you want to be. Volunteer to head up a task force or project. "Management is always happy with someone who says, 'I want more,' " says Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, cofounder of SixFigureStart, an executive coaching firm in New York City.