Thursday, June 16, 2016
Betting on Older Workers
Some organizations are recognizing the business benefits of attracting and retaining older workers, and are going out of their ways to hire and engage them, and make use of all they bring.
It was the early 1980s, and the country was in the midst of a deep recession, so Wilson resigned herself to accepting any suitable job that became available.
On March 1, 1983, Wilson assumed the position of executive assistant to the executive director at St. John's Hospital, a small drug and rehabilitation facility run by Marriottsville, Md.-based Bon Secours Health System Inc. Within five years, she had worked her way up to director of human resources, but the hospital closed due to insurance-reimbursement issues after that, once again leaving her without a job.
Having grown to love the business of healthcare, Wilson accepted a position in the marketing department at St. Mary's Hospital, another Bon Secours facility in Richmond. Soon after, she moved into the organization's foundation office, handling community relations, including groundbreakings and grand openings of new facilities. Thirty-three years later, Wilson is still there, serving as director of donor relations and special events for the Bon Secours Richmond Health Care Foundation. She loves her job and, at age 69, has no immediate plans to retire.
Wilson is hardly an anomaly. More than one-third of Bon Secours' 22,000 employees are 50 and older, and 244 of them are over 70. The not-for-profit Catholic health system has earned a place on the AARP "Best Employers for Workers over 50" list every year since 2003, and its leaders have shared best practices on the subject of working past the traditional retirement age with the National Governors Association, the World Aging Conference and others.
In June 2015, Jim Godwin, vice president of human resources for Bon Secours Virginia Health System, testified at a U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing, examining the challenges and opportunities facing older Americans. He spoke about the importance of attracting and retaining older workers, and shared the stories of 89-year-old Virginia Abbott, who came to work for Bon Secours at age 60, and 81-year-old Nettie Coleman who, after nearly six decades with the health system, still works part-time, conducting physicals, drawing blood, and helping new employees. According to Godwin, Coleman "tried retirement for a few months, but her respect and her passion for her work drew her back."
Bon Secours is far from the only organization with an ample supply of older workers, but it's still woefully in the minority -- a problem compounded by demographics and a reluctance by employers to recognize the bottom-line benefits of this particular sector, says Peter Cappelli, George W. Taylor professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Indeed, demographic trends and survey data point to a definite graying of the workforce with no signs of letting up. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 55-and-older age group is the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. By 2020, the BLS projects, these seasoned individuals will make up roughly 29 percent of the population with a labor-force participation rate of 43 percent. By 2024, BLS projects, that group will comprise 24.8 percent of the civilian labor force, compared to 21.7 in 2014. Meanwhile, a 2015 Federal Reserve study finds 27 percent of Americans plan to "keep working as long as possible," while another 12 percent say they don't plan to retire at all.
"We tend to think this phenomenon of the aging of the population is a blip in the pyramid due to the baby boomers, but it's a global phenomenon that's not going away," says Ruth Finkelstein, assistant professor of health policy and management and associate director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University in New York. "Those employers [that] recognize this incredibly skilled, experienced, resourceful and dedicated [segment of the] workforce will be better equipped to deal" with future workforce demographics in general.
Given that older employees will comprise an increasing share of the workforce, employers must find new and innovative ways to retain and engage them, put their vast knowledge and expertise to good use, and help them prepare to make a graceful exit when the time is right. A few savvy employers have taken significant steps in that direction.
While Bon Secours and other companies have been recognized for their efforts to keep older employees engaged in the workforce, they are the exception rather than the norm, Cappelli reiterates. In large part, he says, that's because companies are so focused on younger workers, they've become oblivious to what older workers bring to the table.
"Employers and HR people are so fixated on the question of millennials and how to court them that they are ignoring this other, bigger group of folks who actually are better suited to what they say they want, which are skills and experience, the right work attitude and the ability to communicate with people," says Cappelli, also co-author, with Bill Novelli, of Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order. "Older workers have all those things."
That fact hasn't escaped management at CVS Health, which endeavors to recruit and retain 50-plus-year-old colleagues through its mature-work program titled "Talent is Ageless." Currently, 24 percent of its workforce falls into that age bracket. Since the mid-2000s, the Woonsocket, R.I.-based drugstore chain has run a successful "snowbirds" program, giving pharmacists who spend winters in Florida and other Southern states the opportunity to temporarily work in a CVS pharmacy close to their winter home.
Such programs are intended to help retain highly experienced staff, who "play an integral role in the culture at CVS Health," says David Casey, vice president of workforce strategies and chief diversity officer. However, they are also part of a calculated strategy to staff CVS stores with employees who mirror their increasingly older customer base.
"We are committed to having a workforce that reflects the diversity of our customers," says Casey. "As we see the baby boomer generation age, having staff in our stores [who] can personally relate to these customers is a differentiator for us."
According to Godwin, it's not a coincidence that nearly half of AARP's list of "Top Employers for People over 50" have the word "health" or "hospital" in their names. A vast and growing aging populace, coupled with a shortage of qualified workers, particularly in the nursing field, have created a situation in which holding on to more seasoned employees isn't just about accommodating workers, it's about survival.
"It's a matter of necessity in order to be able to staff my hospitals properly," says Godwin.
With Age Comes Wisdom
Organizations are not merely turning to older employees out of desperation, but for the deep breadth of knowledge and expertise several decades in the workforce have given them.
"One of the biggest and most enduring reasons companies want to hold on to certain older workers is they have institutional knowledge that is very difficult to train [for in] someone," says Tay McNamara, co-director of the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. "They know how to get things done, they know what channels to go through, and they seem to have this magic way with people because they've built up relationships over time."
Nowhere is that more evident than at the Bethesda, Md.-based National Institutes of Health, where 52 percent of the organization's nearly 19,000 employees are over 50. Its oldest employee is a 95-year-old biomedical researcher with a 70-plus-year tenure. Although the federal government allows early retirement after 25 years of service, just 6 percent of NIH staff choose to retire in their first or second year of eligibility. According to Beth Chandler, director of the workforce-relations division in the office of human resources, NIH staff "stay on well past eligibility," typically by "about six or seven years." That's good news for an organization in which people truly are the experts at what they do.
"We have some people who are so specialized, they may be the only person who does X, Y, or Z," says Chandler. "Across NIH, we've been working toward a better knowledge-management program, seeking to understand what they do, why they do it so well, and how they do it, so we can prepare for when they may depart."
Some of that preparation comes in the form of formal and informal mentoring through which senior employees not only impart their specialized knowledge and expertise to younger colleagues, but also demonstrate "being a professional in a professional environment," says Chandler.
At NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, more than one-third of its 17,000-person workforce is age 55 or older. Nearly 1,000 of them have been there at least a quarter-century and some are approaching a half-century with the academic medical center. The opportunity to draw upon their experience is not only key to educating the next generation of healthcare workers, it's a critical part of keeping older employees engaged, says Nancy Sanchez, senior vice president and vice dean of human resources and organizational development and learning.
"They are an important part of the workforce and we want to make them feel as though they are a valued member of the workforce by giving them opportunities to impart their knowledge to those who are new to the profession," says Sanchez. "Oftentimes, not only do they have the experience, but they have a level of maturity that sets a great example for how to deal with circumstances that may not be textbook." (Continue Reading)
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Betting on Older Workers