Saturday, September 18th, 2021

Turn workforce challenge into opportunity

Posted: Friday, September 23, 2011

By Mark Lawrance, Senior Vice President
Foundation and Operations, Indiana Chamber of Commerce

As baby boomers begin to retire, companies will lose the institutional knowledge and expertise those employees possess unless they start preparing now. Unfortunately, not enough employers are stepping up to the plate. When others eventually do, they’ll be facing a tortoise and hare-type race – and we know who won that one, don’t we

Indiana Chamber Foundation research has addressed a variety of workforce issues in recent years. The aging employee topic is the focus of the Workforce Wise initiative. A December 2009 report titled Aging Implications: A Wake-up Call illustrates why now is the time to start planning for the transition. It contains practical reasons and recommendations.

The research combines existing state and national studies as well as four papers commissioned by the foundation. Among the findings: Adults 65 and older will account for 63% of Indiana’s population growth over the next 35 years. In addition, the number of people within that age group will jump from 753,000 in 2000 to 1.48 million in 2040.

According to a study by the Sloan Center on Aging and Work, 40% of American employers anticipate that the aging of the workforce will have a “negative/very negative” impact on their business.

Do we have your attention yet?

There are a number of things employers can do to capture older workers’ knowledge. One of the most beneficial is implementing mentoring programs that allow workers to shadow soon-to-retire colleagues. In addition to trying to preserve the wisdom that long-time employees bring to the organization, companies should be focused on ways to keep those workers on board. After all, hitting age 65 and heading out the door is no longer the norm for many.

BizVoice® magazine featured a special five-part Workforce Wise series earlier this year. Topics included education and skill development, best places to work for older adults, employees turned entrepreneurs and communities that embrace older residents.

Ellen Miller, executive director of the University of Indianapolis Center for Aging & Community (a partner on the Aging Implications study), noted in one of the stories that many employers acknowledge the importance of planning for employee retirements; the problem is that more immediate or “pressing” issues take precedence.

“… In defense of companies, if something does not affect me next quarter or the next quarter or in the immediate future, it’s hard to spend a lot of time thinking about it. It doesn’t rise to the top of the priorities list,” she emphasizes.

But she and others warn that this issue should be a priority. Some employers have made it one by offering alternatives such as telecommuting, flex-time, compressed workweeks, project-based assignments, reduced hours and job sharing to retain and attract seniors. Other older employees continue to work with companies on a part-time or as-needed basis.

Another solution is to offer continuous skills training. This helps employees remain competitive and dispels myths about older workers. Do these sentiments sound familiar? “Seniors can’t keep up with advanced technology.” “They don’t want to learn new things.” They are simply old-fashioned ageism.

Aging Implications reveals findings from a Society for Human Resource Management survey citing several advantages of hiring older workers. Among them: They are more willing to work different schedules, have invaluable experience and a stronger work ethic, are more reliable and loyal, have established networks and are more productive.

Any “typical” retirement milestone is a thing of the past. A growing number of Baby Boomers are staying in the workforce longer. Some have to keep working due to financial reasons; many simply want to remain engaged.

In a recent BizVoice® story, Steve Kellam, president of Quantum Human Resources (a contributor to the 2009 Workforce Wise project) stressed the importance of seeking employee input and treating them like customers.

“Like anything else, the first thing is find out what their (employee) needs are. It’s basic 101 customer service … There are various ways to ask: ‘What would it take to have you involved in this company beyond retirement?'

The bottom line: Don’t overlook older workers’ skills and talents. Don’t be forced into quickly trying to cope with the loss of key employees and their knowledge base. Slow and steady (start now to continue to benefit from your experienced staff members and their expertise) wins the race.