Leesburg Regional Medical Center and nearby sister unit the Villages Regional Hospital were recently named as winners of the 2007 MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures Breakthrough Awards for employing older workers. And for the second year running, the two Florida hospitals, both several miles northwest of Orlando, have been named by AARP as among the country’s best 50 employers of workers over 50.
"We looked to recognize social-purpose employers who were valuing workers 50 and older as part of their labor force," says Phyllis Segal, a vice president at San Francisco-based think tank Civic Ventures. The organization focuses on plugging in the talents and experience of older adults. Segal directed the Breakthrough Awards program, which cited 10 organizations.
That recognition, adds Segal, includes recruitment and retention of older workers. They’re in the baby boomer generation, and many are interested in an "encore" career that combines meaningful work and helps their communities, she says, while allowing them flexible hours and benefits.
"Leesburg [Regional Medical Center, along with the Villages Regional Hospital] is one of the prime examples of that," Segal says. "They are at the cutting edge of what will become a future where older adults are contributing in significant ways to the success of employers like Leesburg in serving its community."
Lori Parham, Florida director of AARP, says Leesburg and the Villages made the list for using a variety of strategies showing the value of older workers, such as offering flexible work schedules and using a senior placement agency to recruit hospital staff.
"The Villages is in a large, growing retirement community in central Florida in a state looking at serious shortages in health care workers," Parham says.
The hiring of skilled older workers, primarily nurses, she says, makes the two health care facilities "shining examples" of how the shortages can be remedied. "They bring years of experience to the table in a state that has a very big need."
The 50-and-up crowd, she adds, is a large pool of talent for employers to tap.
"This is the perfect place to look for workers who would be happy to be in a workforce but ask for some flexibility," she says. Shorter workweeks, seasonal work arrangements and benefits for full- and part-time schedules are conditions older workers typically need, Parham says.
Darlene Stone, vice president of human resources for Leesburg and the Villages, says 38 percent of the 2,600 employees at both facilities are over 50, with the oldest employee nearly 85.
"Florida is predominantly known as a place where everyone wants to come to retire," Stone says. "And the Villages Hospital is right in the middle of a retirement community."
With an older population surrounding both hospitals, which are 12 miles apart, "We had to be very creative" in recruiting and retaining older staffers, Stone says.
Older workers aren’t going to go for 12-hour shifts, as is common in the industry. They’re more effective working two six-hour shifts, she says.
"We do not set a mandatory retirement age," Stone says. "We embrace them as a valuable part of the workforce."
Among the jobs held by older workers at the two Florida hospitals are nurses, couriers and other staff positions.
"Some are in their second, third or fourth career with us," she says. "Some have gone back for refresher courses. Some work Monday through Friday. Some work weekends only. Staffing is a puzzle with pieces. We figure out ways to make the pieces fit together."
Stone says the idea of taking on an older workforce first came up about eight years ago, when planning started for the Villages hospital’s construction. Before it opened six years ago, 450 job openings had to be filled.
"That’s a challenge," Stone says. Once older workers were recognized as a deep local labor pool, the organization pitched hospital jobs to retirees in the area.
"We’d say, ‘Hey, you can still work. We’ve got awesome benefits. You can work part time. We have excellent health insurance,’ " Stone says.
Because of all the perks, retention of the older workforce isn’t a problem, she says. While some leave to try work at other hospitals, they often come back after experiencing less accommodating employers.
And older workers are less likely than younger generations to leave an employer that treats them well, Stone says.
"Gen X’ers and Gen Y’s don’t believe in loyalty," she says. "They’ll leave for 5 cents more and tend to turn over more than mature workers."
Recruitment of older workers is done very aggressively at both hospitals, she says. When would-be staffers apply for a job, they are typically interviewed that same day, and if they qualify, are often offered a job before they leave. Pay is based on years of experience—the same for applicants of all ages.
"If I let them go," says Stone, "they’re going to go work for someone else."
But it’s not like the hospitals take anyone who walks in the door.
"We do thorough background checks," she says. The difference from other employers, however, is this: "We just do it faster."
The hardest openings to fill, Stone says, are nursing positions, along with physical, occupational and speech therapists. Radiology lab posts are another staffing challenge.
Combined, the hospitals have managed to keep their average number of openings to less than 5 percent, or under 130.
Performance evaluations of older workers are no different than for any other employees, Stone says.
"If there are performance issues, we look at what’s causing it and we look at how we can help solve the problem," she says.
If poor eyesight is a hindrance, bigger computer display screens are offered, with text in larger type for easier reading.
But physical frailties aren’t common.
"Our retirees are very, very active," Stone says. "They play softball, polo and they want to remain active in the employment world."