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Proactive Policies Can Keep Older Workers on Job Longer

Traditional “return to work” programs provide a good foundation, but HR should be more forward-thinking in designing policies aimed at training and retaining seniors.

November 28, 2002
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Related Topics: Attendance, Diversity, Health and Wellness, Compensation
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The aging of the workforce, as millions of baby boomers head towardretirement age over the next decade, will mean a serious "experience shortage."To respond, employers must be proactive to keep aging employees on the job--notonly with health, wellness, and disability-management programs, but also withongoing training to "retool" older workers.

The demographics of the aging workforce have been well documented. To beginwith, there is the sheer size of the baby-boomer population. The Bureau of LaborStatistics estimates that 76 million people were born between 1946 and 1964. By2010, baby boomers will be between the ages of 46 and 64, accounting for asubstantial share of the labor force. The oldest segment of this group will benearing retirement.

Not just America
    The problem of the aging workforce is a global one. According to theOrganization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the median age of theglobal population is increasing, resulting in a decline in the overall "working-age"population, ages 20 to 64. Further, the number of people aged 65 and olderversus those 20 to 64 (known as the old-age dependency ratio) will rise, fromabout 22 percent currently to nearly 50 percent by 2050.

What these statistics mean for employers is that there is a need to design,adopt, and implement policies and programs to train and retain older workers."The demographics have to drive everything from programs to policies," saysJohn Lui, executive director of the Stout Vocational Rehabilitation Institute,University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Currently, few employers are developing programs exclusively for olderworkers. "Companies are obviously aware of the aging of the population, but I’mnot seeing any specific programs for older workers as yet," says Neil Bennett,a vocational counselor and disability-management specialist with WhittallManagement Group, Ltd.

Rather, the needs of maturing workers are addressed in the context ofwellness and disability-management programs. These include the traditionalreturn-to-work programs, under which ill or injured employees are eased backinto the workforce. While these programs provide a good foundation, companypolicies and programs should be expanded further with a single goal in mind: tokeep the older worker productive.

The benefit of the older worker
    The need to address the aging workforce is obvious, given demographics thatshow more employees approaching the traditional retirement age than young peopleseeking jobs. "Companies won’t have enough entrants to fill the void," Luisays. "The aging workers and the disabled population will be key tomaintaining productivity."

The value of older workers, however, goes beyond the need to fill positions.Older workers have in-depth knowledge and experience. Moreover, they tend to bemore loyal to their employers, staying in their jobs longer than youngerworkers, who have a greater tendency to change positions.

"The older worker is a valuable part of a diversified workforce," notesNorman Hursh, associate professor in the rehabilitation counseling department ofthe Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Boston University,and director of rehabilitation services at the Sargent Clinic at the university."For any company interested in improving its bottom line and expandingglobally or even into other local markets, a diversified workforce is a plus.With more diversity--race, age, sex, and disability--you bring in people whohave a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. This has proved to be anasset to companies trying to increase their potential to adapt to a new marketor a new trend."

Shattering myths about seniors
    The pattern used to be that older workers, often at the top of the pay scale,left the workforce to make room for younger, less "expensive" employees. Thepolicy implications of that practice included early-incentive retirements anddisability-related retirements. The result of this, over time, has been a "wholeisolation and marginalization of an increasing proportion of the population,"Hursh states.

Further, because of the life expectancy in the United States--which reached arecord high of 76.9 years in 2000--people need an income longer. Moreover, today’slifestyle encourages the belief that people can be active and productive farbeyond the typical retirement age of 65. "It used to be that when peopleturned 60, they were old," Hursh says. "Sixty is not old now."

Another myth: older workers, simply because of their age, are more frequentlyinjured on the job. Not so, Hursh and Lui both argue. Granted, older workers whoare injured may take longer to recover. Still, employers would be well advisedto invest resources to accommodate these older workers and bring them back tothe job through return-to-work programs. Often, return-to-work provides altered,light duty for workers who have been ill or injured, or even a temporaryassignment elsewhere in the company.

"Return-to-work programs are an obvious benefit for older workers, who needto come back to the job but may not be able to resume their regular dutiesimmediately," says Beth Kelley, president of Kelley Consulting Group andcurrent chair of the Certification of Disability Management SpecialistsCommission (CDMSC). "Companies should not see this as an expense, however.Bringing older workers back on the job is an investment--not only in thatemployee, but in the rich experience and knowledge of the company’s workforce."

"Retooling" the older worker
    To be their most productive for the future, older workers must be trained andequipped with knowledge--especially of technology and its applications. This mayrequire a shift in thinking on the part of both the employee and the employer.

"The labor market and the workforce are changing very, very rapidly. Thus,workers need to be retooled," states Hursh. "Lifelong learning is the newmind-set and a practice that will be required of all of us. Admittedly, this maybe harder for the older worker to recognize and adopt."

The attitudes that must be changed are the "you can’t teach an old dognew tricks" belief, or the "world is passing me by" fear of some olderpeople. "There is nothing that says technology is only for the young," addsHursh.

In fact, information and communications technology applications are wellsuited to the older worker, Lui notes. "This is the kind of work that can bedone at home or part-time. It’s not as physically demanding, but it doesrequire some specialized skills and training."

The increased flexibility--such as telecommuting--that is afforded bytechnology likely will be embraced by many older workers. According to a surveyby the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), 8 out of 10 baby boomersplan to work during retirement years, although not necessarily at the same jobor full-time.

The emphasis on training, especially in technology applications, will bevital to all employees, and in particular to older workers. To be the mosteffective, these training programs should be designed to address the needs andbackground of the older worker, as well as the technologically savvy youngeremployee who grew up with computers.

"Older workers may learn differently. They might have to go at a differentpace if they’ve not kept up with computers and technology, for example," Luisays. "But they should be accommodated in their training. Accommodation isn’tjust for bringing workers back on the job. This philosophy should be adoptedthroughout the workplace, especially when it comes to helping workers get thetraining they need for the future."

Workforce Online, December 2002 -- Register Now!

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