After the September 11 twin towers tragedy, the FBI confronted an unusual problem in trying to launch a worldwide terrorism investigation: inexperience. More than 40 percent of the 11,400 FBI agents around the world had five or less years on the job. While it began a massive campaign to hire new agents, the FBI turned to another source for the immediate investigation. The agency hired dozens of its retired agents on a contract basis as intelligence analysts and evidence examiners.
The retired agents couldn’t carry guns, and they were classified as "temporary" employees so as not to disrupt their pension benefits. However, experts say, their abilities were sorely needed. A congressional committee looking into intelligence failures linked to September 11 cited a lack of analytical skills as perhaps the FBI’s greatest weakness. According to the committee, the agency had failed to appreciate the importance of several pieces of information related to possible terrorist activity just before the attacks. Ironically, experts say, the FBI contributed to this problem with its mandatory retirement age of 57, which forced many of its most experienced analysts out of work. "They inadvertently created a brain drain," says Robert F. Morison, director of research for the Concours Group, a consulting firm in Kingwood, Texas.
While the FBI’s lack of experienced workers is particularly dramatic, this "brain drain" mirrors the situation that companies and organizations throughout the country will soon face. Eleven thousand Americans turn 50 every day, the Department of Labor reports. The pending retirements of baby boomers will strip the workforce of massive numbers of skilled workers for whom, as the FBI found, there are no quick-and-easy replacements. This loss of workers "could put whole businesses in jeopardy," says Jane Paradiso, national practice leader of workforce planning at Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Washington, D.C.
In many cases, companies that are just beginning to deal with this problem have found the same solution as the FBI. Retired and older employees, who were often brushed aside by hiring managers in the past decade’s obsession with youth, could be the solution to the approaching worker shortage. The AARP recently completed a nationwide survey of 2,001 people between the ages of 50 and 70, asking about their views on retirement. Sixty-three percent said they plan to work at least part-time in retirement; 5 percent said they plan to never retire, some because they like working, others because they need the money to replace lost retirement savings. Experts say this new older workforce will make it necessary for companies to rethink their approach on everything from recruitment and training to benefits and providing new challenges.
Steve Wing, director of government programs for the CVS drugstore chain, isn’t given to hyperbole, but when asked about the importance of older workers to his company, he says, "Without older workers, we wouldn’t have a company." CVS, anticipating the changes in workforce demographics, began specifically recruiting workers past the half-century mark a decade ago. In 1992, 7 percent of its 10,000 employees were over 55. At that time, the company did a study of its older workers and made some surprising discoveries. Older workers, it turned out, were much less likely to call in sick than their younger colleagues. When CVS looked closely at the roles that older workers were performing, misconceptions about their physical and mental capacities were also bashed: 70-year-olds were still lifting heavy boxes; 90-year-olds held demanding managerial positions.
In the past 10 years, through heavy recruiting efforts, CVS has more than doubled its over-55 workforce, which now represents 16 percent of the company. The effort started slowly. Initially, CVS representatives went to senior centers and pitched the company as a great place for older workers. "Of the 100 people who came to the presentation, only 10 wanted to work, but those were the 10 we wanted," Wing says.
"Many older people have a work ethic and sense of civility that the younger generation has not learned yet."
At first, older workers were separated into their own training programs. CVS, which maintains six learning centers around the country, found that the older workers took longer to grasp certain things, such as technology. Over time, though, CVS learned that older workers needed less training in other areas, including customer service. "Many older people have a work ethic and sense of civility that the younger generation has not learned yet," Wing says.
CVS eventually merged the training groups, realizing that the different generations could learn from one another and would be working together eventually anyway. "The older people provide a great example of work ethic and customer service for the young people," Wing says. "The younger people help revitalize the older workers and give them enthusiasm for work."
Supervising your grandparents
A large older workforce brings special challenges. Some CVS managers were uncomfortable supervising employees who were old enough to be their parent or grandparent. "At first, some of the younger managers were concerned that these older workers might try to take their jobs, but we found that many of the older workers had already done the management thing and now just wanted to work," Wing says.
CVS hired a consultant to provide training to head off intergenerational misunderstandings, such as an older worker who preferred to be called Mister instead of Pops by his younger colleagues. Most of the skills the consultant preached were simply about showing respect, and applicable to anyone, so CVS incorporated this perspective into its general training program.
Today, CVS has linked its recruitment efforts with the AARP and the National Council on the Aging, a national training and employment services organization for mature workers based in Washington, D.C. CVS tries to match the number of older workers in each of its stores to the demographics of the particular community the store serves. As its customer base ages, CVS finds, more customers want to see older workers.
"Some retailers use older workers just as greeters, but we employ them throughout the organization in all sorts of roles," Wing says. "We have workers into their 70s, and some in their 90s, who are not just holding down entry-level jobs."
CVS often turns to older workers to fill positions that require high amounts of organization and discipline. For instance, older workers are often put in charge of the greeting-card sections, which are key profit centers for which inventory must be selected and ordered wisely "so that all the dollars don’t end up being tied up in drawers," Wing says.
For hard-to-fill pharmacist-support positions, the company tries to recruit older workers with a medical background, such as retired nurses. Like other companies, CVS finds that filling positions often means looking for skills rather than specific experience. Recently, for example, CVS hired an older former information technology manager to run one of its stores. "We didn’t have an IT position in his area," Wing says. "He didn’t have any retail experience, but that’s something we can teach. The other skills he had, like knowing how to work with people and get things done, take years to develop."
Attributes of loyalty and dedication, which CVS’s survey connected with older workers a decade ago, still hold true today. Wing likes to tell the story of an 80-year-old pharmacy technician who has been with the company for 60 years and now works in a CVS store in Zanesville, Ohio. During a savage snowstorm last year, the technician was the only one who made it to work. "She called her manager and said, ‘Where is everybody?’ "
Looking for flexibility
Noting the aging population, consultant Paradiso says, "What Florida looks like today, the United States will soon look like." David Fleming already knows what it’s like to recruit workers in a geographic region with an older population. He heads the human resources department at Brethren Village, a continuing-care retirement community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Because Lancaster is an older area, so is Brethren’s workforce: 34 percent of its workers (182 out of 529) are over age 50. Fleming goes to senior job fairs, where he stresses the many job attributes at Brethren that surveys show are particularly important to older workers.
For one thing, Brethren provides flexible schedules. If workers want to spend the winter in Florida, Brethren will be happy to employ them during the warmer months. Knowing that health insurance can be a hot-button topic for older workers, Brethren gives health-care coverage year-round to part-time workers.
According to surveys by Watson Wyatt and others, many older workers, particularly those who opt for part-time work, look for companies that will provide "bridge" medical coverage until Medicare kicks in. Seventeen percent of the AARP survey respondents said "a need for health benefits" was a key reason they would work during retirement. Giving full medical benefits to older workers who decide to go part-time, experts say, can be an effective way to hang on to skilled employees, and can be cheaper than bringing in new workers who must be trained.
"The word spreads that this is a good place for senior workers, and the idea of working here catches fire."
Beyond this, Brethren stresses the training that workers receive. Brethren has difficulty finding enough workers in key areas like the facilities maintenance department, so it looks for ways to help workers stretch their skills. If the department needs to put up wallpaper but can find only painters, it will hire them and send them to wallpapering classes or bring in a trainer. "When our older workers talk to their friends at church and other places, they are always impressed by the amount of training we give them," Fleming says. "The word spreads that this is a good place for senior workers, and the idea of working here catches fire."
In the AARP survey, respondents were asked to rate the importance of various attributes of the jobs they hold or plan to hold in retirement. Factors that contributed to a life/work balance and allowed workers to grow and learn new skills were deemed "very important" by half of those polled. An important aspect of attracting and retaining older workers is offering them new roles and responsibilities, so they have a continuing sense of self-discovery. However, in a survey of 150 HR executives conducted by the Conference Board last year, two-thirds of the respondents said they don’t offer training for mature workers as an incentive to upgrade skills. Companies like Brethren that do this have an edge in tapping into the older workforce.
Easing back into work
Partly because of the influx of older workers, Brethren instituted a more aggressive mentoring program for new hires three years ago. Fleming found that after the normal orientation, new hires often had many questions, especially older employees who had been lured out of retirement and had not been in the workforce for many years.
In the mentoring program, new employees meet daily with an appointed "buddy" to help them adjust to the workplace. This is in addition to the interaction the new employees have with their own supervisor. "It reassures individuals re-entering the workforce that they made the right decision to come to Brethren," Fleming says. "It shows that we listen and care about our workers."
St. Mary’s Medical Center, in Huntington, West Virginia, provides a similar kind of assurance to older workers and others that it lures out of retirement. Like the rest of the health-care industry, St. Mary’s faces a critical shortage of nurses. Two years ago, St. Mary’s began looking beyond nursing-school graduates and other traditional sources to bolster its depleted ranks. The medical center sent letters to older alumni of a local nursing school and its own retiree club, asking if they wanted to return to work.
Understandably, some of the returning St. Mary’s nurses, who had been retired for up to 20 years, were concerned about dealing with new technology and other changes in the fast-paced medical field. The re-entry program helped nurses who had let their licenses lapse get recertified. More important, the nurses were at first assigned to less demanding tasks. They handled the initial assessment of patients and did things like change IV tubing, rather than provide intensive patient care. After six months or so, some of those nurses opted to move into more demanding roles.
Over the past two years, the re-entry program has added 18 nurses to St. Mary’s 600-person nursing staff. "That may not sound like a lot, but when you are trying to plug a hole in a middle shift, those nurses are heaven-sent," says Jennifer Gore, a nurse recruiter at St. Mary’s. And since nursing positions make up 75 percent of all hospital vacancies nationwide, there are a lot of holes to fill.
Experts agree that many older people will not apply for positions because they think they don’t have a chance of being hired, or won’t be treated well if they are. Companies that bend over backward to correct these misconceptions have a better chance of tapping into the older workforce. Volkswagen of America Inc. has never actively recruited older workers, but the average age of its workforce is 44. Understandably, the carmaker has put a lot of effort into creating an "age-friendly" workforce.
One way that Volkswagen achieves this is by asking older workers for suggestions on how to avoid age barriers, a simple technique that companies often overlook. In addition, the company’s Diversity Committee includes a number of older managers who help other managers become more sensitive to older workers’ needs.
Those efforts are backed up with action. Older workers are encouraged to go back to school, take part in professional organizations and serve as mentors to younger colleagues. In the company’s mentoring program, the more seasoned workers spend three to four hours a month with high-potential employees who have less experience. Stephen Stephens, Volkswagen’s human resources leader, says that the relationship is good for the employees and the company.
Baptist Health South Florida, a nonprofit health-care provider, also makes sure that its older workers are treated fairly. Any action that might be detrimental to a worker with 15 years or more of service, such as a demotion, pay cut or job elimination, must be approved by a three-person committee consisting of Baptist’s president, the head of human resources and the vice president in charge of the worker’s department. The human resources department also has two "inside moves" representatives who help older workers change jobs internally, such as transferring to positions that are less physically demanding and require less lifting, says Carl Gustafson, Baptist’s corporate vice president of human resources.
The company doesn’t do all this out of compassion or kindness. About 24 percent of its 10,000 workers are over age 50. "We need these workers," Gustafson says. "So we need to do whatever it takes to keep them."
Workforce Management, December 2003, pp. 49-54 -- Subscribe Now!