January 15, 2008 in City

Labor experts advise tapping older workers

Wall Street Journal The Spokesman-Review

Planning ahead

Experts say companies that want to attract and retain older workers should take the following steps:

Offer flexible schedules

Provide training opportunities

Feature older people in recruiting material

Offer competitive health care benefits

Train supervisors to manage workers of all ages

An expected wave of baby-boomer retirements has some managers fretting about worker shortages. But experts say many companies overlook a big supply of potential employees – older workers who can be wooed to continue working.

Only 18 percent of U.S. employers reported having a strategy to recruit older workers, and only 28 percent cited a plan to retain older employees, according to a survey of 1,000 U.S. companies in late 2006 by Manpower Inc., a staffing and employment-services company.

Companies’ top two concerns about older workers were high salary expectations and health-care costs, the survey showed. They also worried about having to teach older workers new skills, and handling potential tensions with younger employees.

Employers who ignore older workers now will suffer as boomers near retirement age, says Melanie Cosgrove Holmes, a vice president at Manpower. By 2012, nearly one in three U.S. workers will be over 50, according to AARP, a group for people age 50 and older. “Progressive companies that are looking ahead … are the ones that are going to be most successful,” Holmes says.

About three years ago, Home Depot Inc. sought to tap older workers as it opened stores. The company contacted AARP, and the talks led to creation of the association’s “National Employer Team” – companies it endorses as friendly to older workers. Thirty employers belong to the group, including Principal Financial Group Inc., Borders Group Inc. and MetLife Inc. AARP members can search jobs at the companies through the association’s Web site.

Companies say certain policies help draw older workers. Mature employees, for instance, may want more flexibility; some may have elderly parents to care for, while others simply want more leisure time.

Another tactic: offering ample training. Deborah Russell, director of work-force issues for AARP, says many older workers are eager to learn new skills. In addition, she says, employers must offer competitive health-care benefits.

Principal Financial has a program for its retirees called “Happy Returns.” Retirees sign on as employees of Manpower, and come back to work for Principal, mostly on a part-time or project basis. Retiree MaryLu Baumbach enrolled in 2004, after nearly 13 years at Principal. “I like it here so well,” she says. Plus, she says, she can’t afford to retire completely. “We still have house payments.”

She has averaged between eight and 40 hours per week over the past few years, now working as a receptionist. She says she earns about 50 cents more per hour than before she retired.

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