Recession, Talent Shortages Top Concerns Among CEOs for 2020

The Conference Board’s new survey of CEOs from around the globe reveals a growing concern about the economy, on the one hand, and finding and keeping good employees on the other. Despite looming challenges in the New Year, leaders say they are prepared to fight back. Let’s take a closer look.

January 7, 2020 – A new survey reveals that the world’s chief executives view the risk of a recession as their biggest external concern in 2020. Attracting and retaining talent ranks as their top internal concern. They also feel unsettled by trade uncertainty, political instability and more intense competition from disruptive technologies. They plan to counter such forces, however, by developing more innovative cultures and setting up new business models.

Conducted annually since 1999 by The Conference Board, this year’s survey gauged nearly 750 CEOs and nearly 800 other C-suite executives from mainly four regions: Europe, Latin America, Asia and the U.S. As part of the survey, participants weighed in on which external and internal issues warrant the most immediate attention in 2020.

“The global challenge in acquiring and retaining talent requires companies to be more strategic – knowing not only what qualities and skills to recruit for, but also how to recruit more efficiently and effectively,” said Rebecca Lea Ray, executive vice president of human capital at the Conference Board. “To support such efforts, they can consider leveraging artificial intelligence, a valuable tool when used with the proper understanding and safeguards.”

For the second year in a row, CEOs and other C-suite executives globally ranked a recession as their top external worry in the year ahead. For U.S. CEOs, a recession rose from being their third biggest concern in 2019 to their top one in 2020. The issue surpassed cybersecurity, their top concern in 2019. A recession also topped the list of concerns of Chinese and European CEOs, and ranked as the runner-up for Latin American and Japanese CEOs.

CEOs globally ranked uncertainty about global trade as their second biggest external worry in 2020. It ranked as the fourth biggest worry of U.S. CEOs, tied with its affiliate issue, global political instability. Chinese CEOs ranked trade uncertainty as their top worry, tied with their fear of a recession. CEOs in Latin America and Europe ranked it first and third, respectively.

Chinese CEOs ranked the effects of economic sanctions as their fifth biggest external worry, tied with the issue of more demanding customers. Their concern about sanctions was the highest ranking by any country by a big margin. The Conference Board also asked what it reveals about U.S.-China trade tensions.The role technology plays in this conflict is deep and enduring. Tariffs are likely to be temporary and easily subject to negotiation, but technology blockades, via economic sanctions, are not.

Competition Intensifies  

For CEOs globally, fiercer competition rose from being their fourth top external worry in 2019 to their third in 2020. For two years in a row, U.S. CEOs cited the issue as their second top external worry. For Chinese CEOs, concerns about fiercer competition rose from being their seventh in 2019 to their third in 2020.

The Conference Board survey also found that cybersecurity budgets have increased, but strategy remains elusive.More than 70 percent of responding CEOs globally planned to increase their cybersecurity budgets in 2020. Almost 40 percent of responding CEOs globally said their organizations lack a clear strategy to deal with the financial and reputational impact of a cyber attack or data breach.

For 2020, CEOs globally ranked the impact of climate change on their business as ninth, up from 11th in 2019. CEOs in Latin America ranted the issue fourth, up from 10th in 2019. European CEOs ranked it eighth, up from 13th last year.


The Upskilling Deadlock to Continue in 2020
Research has revealed a paradox at the heart of current debates around upskilling. On the one hand, the vast majority of U.S. workers believe it’s imperative to train for and develop new skills in order to keep up with changes in the workplace. On the other, that same contingent of workers also say that neither government nor employers bear primary responsibility for providing them with those skills. So who needs to step up? According to a report by Randstad, that question won’t be put to bed in 2020, but it’s almost certainly going to come up, in one form or another, as a talking point in the 2020 presidential election.


“The ongoing concerns about recession risk among business leaders reflect the slowing economy of the past year and the uncertainties about the outcome of the trade disputes and other policy concerns,” said Bart van Ark, chief economist at the Conference Board. “However, given a slightly better outlook for the global economy and an easing of trade tensions, we anticipate that a drumbeat of negative sentiment – which can become a self-fulling prophecy – can be avoided, and that we will see more confidence about business prospects in 2020.”

Related: Top Executive Jobs for 2020

The Conference Board found the No. 1 internal priority to be attracting and retaining top talent. Regardless of a company’s location or size, attracting and retaining top talent ranked as the top internal stressor for CEOs and other C-Suite executives globally in 2020. What’s intensifying the talent battle? Respondents said a tight labor market, among other issues. CEOs globally, for example, cited the tight labor market as their fifth biggest external worry in the year ahead.

Widespread Commitment to Cultivating Future Leaders

CEOs and other C-Suite executives globally ranked developing “next gen” leaders as their fourth top internal priority. Japanese CEOs rated this issue as their No. 1 internal priority, ahead of all other internal issues. The Conference Board also found that women C-suite executives were more concerned about equal pay for equal work. Globally, implementing equal pay for equal work ranked as their sixth top internal priority. Globally, the issue ranked as their 15th top internal priority.

The survey results reveal much agreement between CEOs in mature economies (436 respondents) and emerging markets (304 respondents). However, some stark differences exist when it comes to which issues they planned to prioritize in 2020.

3 External Differences

  • Tight labor market – Mature-market CEOs ranked the issue as their third biggest external concernEmerging-market CEOs ranked it 10th.
  • Uncertainty about global trade – Emerging-market CEOs ranked the issue as their No. 1 external concern. Mature-market CEOs ranked it fourth.

Upbeat Hiring Plans Heading Into the New Year
U.S. employers expect the hiring pace to remain steady into the first 90 days of 2020 though regional and industry forecasts are mixed, according to the latest “Employment Outlook Survey,” released by ManpowerGroup. Employers in all U.S. regions and industry sectors said they were expecting headcount to grow.


  • Declining trust in political and policy institutions – Emerging-market CEOs ranked the issue as their fifth top external concern. Mature-market CEOs ranked it eighth.

3 Internal Differences

  • Create new business models because of disruptive technologies – Emerging-market CEOs ranked the issue as their second top internal priority. Mature-market CEOs ranked it fourth.
  • Manage mergers and acquisitions – Mature-market CEOs ranked the issue as their seventh top internal priority. Emerging-market CEOs ranked it 12th.
  • Build a more inclusive culture – Mature-market CEOs ranked the issue as their eighth top internal priority. Emerging-market CEOs ranked it 16th.

“When it comes to creating new business models because of disruptive technologies, there is more urgency among emerging-market CEOs than those in more mature economies,” said Chuck Mitchell, executive director of knowledge, content, and quality at the Conference Board. “This should raise a warning flag about possible complacency considering the current speed of disruption. The truth is that, today, companies no longer enjoy the luxury of a decades-long lead time to adapt to the digital revolution.”

Related: Skills Shortages Causing Recruiting Difficulties

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor  – Hunt Scanlon Media

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