How Attracting and Retaining Older Employees Can Help Your Business

Arlene S. Hirsch
October 1, 2019
Society for Human Resource Management

After 68-year-old Paul Critchlow retired from a successful 30-year career in corporate communications with Merrill Lynch, he had no intention of returning to the workforce. However, when the initial euphoria of being retired wore off, he found himself wondering, “What comes next?”

“When you retire, it’s shocking how fast people forget about you. I started to feel like I was irrelevant because I had nothing on my calendar and no one was asking about me,” said Critchlow.

Actually, there was someone who was asking about him and was eager to get on his calendar.

“I was looking for a mature presence that some highly experienced professionals are uniquely qualified to provide,” said Sally Susman, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer, a multinational pharmaceutical corporation headquartered in New York City. “I wanted to work with someone who was able to offer wisdom and caring in a way that wasn’t laced with ambition.”

So she reached out to Critchlow with a thought-provoking proposal.

Susman had recently watched a movie called “The Intern,” featuring actor Robert DeNiro as a 70-year-old intern, and wanted Critchlow to help her replicate that experiment at Pfizer.

“The idea was to experiment with intergenerational learning,” said Critchlow. “Sally felt the interns could learn from my experiences and presumed wisdom. I felt I could learn how Millennials view and approach their careers and lives.”

So in the summer of 2016, Critchlow was working in a bullpen at Pfizer with a team of college interns, earning the same hourly wage they were earning and performing many of the same duties. But he was obviously no ordinary intern, and soon employees throughout the division were seeking him out for mentoring and advice. This included military veterans who were curious about his experience during the Vietnam War, employees nearing retirement and contemplating their own retirement options, and aspiring crisis-communications professionals eager to hear what it was like to be Merrill Lynch’s chief spokesman during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

“He became the centerpiece of that office. He was an adviser to me and a positive force throughout the division,” said Susman. “Everyone wanted to learn from his experience.”

For Critchlow, the experience was equally invigorating. So, six months after his internship ended, he proposed a part-time consulting arrangement. Now, a few days each month, he travels to Pfizer headquarters, where he formally mentors two high-potential communications professionals and informally mentors whoever wants his help.

Rethinking Retirement

In a tight labor market where it can be difficult to compete for talent, more employers are looking carefully at how to leverage the skills and experiences of older workers. They’re also helping older workers better understand the job opportunities available, as well as how those workers can help themselves by developing late-career working and retirement plans.

“The traditional rules and expectations that people should retire at 65 represents an outdated view of aging,” said Ruth Finkelstein, executive director of the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging at Hunter College in New York. “The life expectancy of a 65-year-old is 20 more years. A lot of people aren’t financially or psychologically prepared for what that means.”

Indeed, a Gallup survey found that “whether by choice or necessity, Baby Boomers will remain a sizable proportion of the workforce in the years ahead, with many expecting to work past the average U.S. retirement age of 61 and even the traditional retirement age of 65.”

I wanted to work with someone who was able to offer wisdom and caring in a way that wasn’t laced with ambition.
Valerie Grubb, principal with Val Grubb & Associates, an HR leadership and training company in New Orleans, said, “Companies are already experiencing a severe labor shortage, and with growth in the U.S. labor force projected to remain low for the next several decades, companies need to look for qualified talent at any age if they want to remain competitive.”

Bureau of Labor Statistics data bear that out, as workers over age 65 are projected to be the fastest-growing segment of the workforce through 2024.

Of course, not every older worker is interested in working into their 70s, which means employers need to think strategically about their older workforce to determine which employees add value and who may need to be “eased out the door,” said Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

“If you want your skilled and talented Boomers to stay, you have to make it worth their while,” said Duxbury. “Many want to leave because of the workload, but some would love to take on coaching and mentoring roles where their whole job is knowledge transfer,” perhaps on a part-time basis.

Finkelstein recommends that companies give people managers permission to work out individual arrangements with their older employees rather than force them to institute formal, phased retirement programs at the corporate level.

“Companies need to make sure that the people who are the strongest contributors get the best deals,” she said. “Chronological age by itself isn’t a useful measure of an employee’s capabilities. What’s important is the individual’s functional age.”

Invest in Training and Development

Two of the most widespread misconceptions about older workers is that they are less productive and innovative, and they are inflexible when presented with new ways of accomplishing their jobs. Yet there is no evidence to support those assumptions.

“It’s a fallacy to assume that Boomers aren’t interested in personal development. They want to keep learning and expanding their knowledge set and use their skills to solve new problems,” said Grubb. “The great news is that they start at a higher plane than younger employees, so they can make bigger contributions faster. That spells a win-win situation for companies and Boomers.”

Paul Millman, CEO of Chroma Technology Corp., a fiber optics manufacturer in Bellows Falls, Vt., doesn’t understand companies that don’t value the experience and maturity of older workers. Nearly 45 percent of his company’s 140 employees are over age 50.

This is partly a matter of logistics. Because it can be difficult to find enough highly skilled workers in rural Vermont, Chroma invests a lot of time, care and energy in providing every employee with the training and resources they need to succeed, said Millman.

If you want your skilled and talented Boomers to stay, you have to make it worth their while.
The company uses peer work trainers to onboard and mentor employees until they demonstrate competency in their new roles, and it also provides ongoing training to everyone, regardless of age. Chroma also offers telecommuting and flextime work arrangements so that longtime employees can take up to 11 weeks of unpaid leave without losing their jobs or their medical insurance.

Internships and Apprenticeships

Though still relatively rare, some employers offer older workers the opportunity to participate in internships and apprenticeships that provide them with the tools they need to change careers.

Intel’s Encore Career Fellowship offers a one-year, $25,000 stipend to help employees who lost their jobs before they were ready to retire prepare for post-retirement careers. The average age of the participants is 60.

“It’s an opportunity for employees whose jobs have been eliminated to transition into a new career,” said Jim Emerman, vice president of Encore.org in San Francisco. “It gives them a chance to do something they find meaningful.”

The fellowship also allows nonprofits to work with employees who have a level of skill and experience that these organizations could not normally afford, said Emerman. Once they complete their fellowship, some participants receive job offers, while others find jobs at other nonprofit organizations. For example, one participant joined the Nature Conservancy team in Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of California, after his internship at Encore ended.

While these internships are specifically designed for older workers, apprenticeships are more likely to be age-diverse than age-specific.

Huntington Ingalls Industries is the largest military shipbuilding company in the United States. When the Virginia-based company started its apprenticeship program 60 years ago, the average participant was 21 years old. The age ceiling was raised and ultimately eliminated in 1996 after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that apprenticeship programs should be subject to the requirements of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

The inclusion of older workers in an apprenticeship program is more than a legality for a company that values its older workforce. Currently about 35 percent of Huntington Ingalls’ 21,000 employees are Boomers, the company reports.

The Business Case for a Multigenerational Workforce

“Rather than considering the multigenerational workplace as a liability or challenge, managers would be better off looking at it as an opportunity for people from different generations to learn from each other,” said Grubb, author of Clash of the Generations: Managing the New Workplace Reality (Wiley, 2016).

Grubb’s observation is borne out by research conducted by the AARP Public Policy Institute showing that mixed-age teams are more productive and innovative than single-generation teams. They may be happier, too.

A survey of more than 32,000 McDonald’s employees in the United Kingdom found that people who work with a cross section of ages were more satisfied with their work than those who only work with their peers. And, in a smaller sample of 1,000 customers, the majority said they prefer to see a mix of ages among employees.

Younger employees also benefit from the experience of working with older co-workers, the survey found, while older employees enjoy sharing their knowledge. Older employees also like having their younger co-workers to teach them about technology, said Claire Hall, the former chief people officer for McDonald’s U.K.

Not every industry has caught on to the value of a multigenerational workforce, though. Age bias is perhaps most visible in the tech industry, where younger employees, who are usually more familiar with the latest technologies, are given the best opportunities, research has found.

As the global head of diversity and belongingness at Atlassian, a San Francisco software company, 30-year-old Aubrey Blanche is trying to disrupt that paradigm by advocating for age-diverse workplaces. She said that having the opportunity to work in a mixed-age environment allows her to see things from a different perspective and makes her a stronger contributor.

Grubb explained, “Cross-functional mentoring helps all employees. Besides knowledge transfer, it promotes respect for differences, teaches teamwork and gets both young and old up on new technologies and techniques that can result in quicker problem-solving.”

Adopting a Holistic Perspective

At FCCI, a commercial property and casualty insurance company in Sarasota, Fla., more than one-third of the workforce is over age 50, and many of those employees are new hires.

“We value their seasoned perspective and subject matter expertise,” said Lisa Krouse, the company’s CHRO.

FCCI’s goal is to create an engaged and inclusive workforce in which every employee feels valued and appreciated, regardless of age.

“We are rewriting the rule as it relates to age demographics,” said Krouse. “By removing the lens of age as a way to view existing or potential employees, we are able to shift the focus to their abilities, skills and knowledge and expand our talent recruitment pool.”

Managers at FCCI meet with each other and each employee to find out what employees want, identify gaps, and then focus on training and talent acquisition to address those gaps—and this strategy appears to be working.

FCCI has been included in AARP’s Best Places to Work for People Over 50 and Forbes’ Best Places to Work for Millennials list, and it was named one of the Best Places to Work in Insurance by Business Insurance magazine.

Different generations have more in common than they realize, said Krouse. Everyone is looking for meaningful work, flexible work arrangements, opportunities to learn and grow, and greater work/life balance.

“We try to do the right thing in the right way,” said Krouse.

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