HR Leaders Talk: The aging workforce

We talked to 5 HR leaders about issues around older workers including engagement, succession and health costs
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/19/2013

Jane McVeigh, vice-president of human resources at C4 Systems International
The General Dynamics Canada business unit is based in Ottawa and has 1,100 employees

At a company like General Dynamics Canada, knowledge transfer is key, according to Jane McVeigh. The defence electronics company produces technology-based, integrated solutions for land, airborne and maritime applications.

And it really counts on older, more mature workers to guide and mentor the younger generations, says McVeigh, vice-president of human resources at C4 Systems International, a business unit of General Dynamics.

“One of the things that we find really, really difficult is knowledge transfer and so we really do depend on the mentorship and guidance that older workers can provide,” she says.

While the older demographic brings a lot of value, there can also be concerns, says McVeigh, who has been at the company for 15 years. For instance, if you’re not a large organization and you’re not growing, it can be hard to promote people into more senior roles because there is someone already in place who’s not going anywhere.

“That can be somewhat of an issue if you’ve got a smaller organization where you don’t have a lot of areas where you can promote and place people, so sometimes that is an issue if people are staying well past retirement age.”

The average age of employees at the 65-year-old General Dynamics used to be 44 and now it’s 46, says McVeigh.

“We are a maturing organization, there’s no question about it.”

However, the average age of retirement is 62 and that hasn’t changed, she says. The 1,100-emplyee company has been very successful in encouraging graduated or phased retirement by approaching older workers who are near or approaching retirement age, and offering them an opportunity.

The phased retirement is done over one to two years and usually involves people taking a shorter workweek or taking the summer or winter off. Alternatively, people can reduce their time at work by 20 per cent for six months, and then another 20 per cent until they’re down to 40 per cent and eventually retire.

“This is the greatest, this is a win-win,” says McVeigh. “It offers an opportunity for a person to ease more gently into retirement; it gives them some time off as well so it provides an income. It eases them into retirement and it provides us with flexibility of movement in terms of redeploying people maybe into their role — plus I don’t lose the skills.”

Phased retirement will become a lot more prevalent, she says.

“The real upside is that you have access to this talent for a lot longer than you used to and, in most cases, that’s wonderful. And if you can really blend it with phased retirement and/or part-time work after retirement, you can still promote movement within the organization and you still have access to that brain trust.”

Employees are starting to appreciate this approach as a possibility, says McVeigh, “because they don’t want to show their hand either and they don’t want it to seem or to have us think that they’re really looking to slow down and leave.”

As for possible differences between generations in the workplace, the most fundamental one is the culture of hours, she says. Older workers tend to feel they made sacrifices and fought their way to the top, while younger workers are more focused on having a well-balanced life.

“It gives older workers a healthy perspective as well… that you’re not living to work and success is actually not just about professional success, it’s about your whole life.”

Turnover among the older generations is not usually a problem because once people reach a certain age and are content with their position, they stay where they are, says McVeigh, who is also responsible for 800 employees in the United Kingdom.

It also helped that General Dynamics Canada had a defined benefit pension plan up until the 1990s, which enticed people to stay. It still offers a defined contribution plan, a group RRSP along with full health and dental.

And when it comes to potential hikes in costs around health care and older workers, McVeigh says she’d be silly to say they’re not a concern.

“Every employer is looking at what impact health costs are going to be to the organization as a result of people working well into their 60s and 70s sometimes. Yeah, that is going to be an issue,” she says. “If you’ve got a representative sample of what’s in the community, your health costs are bound to go up.”

General Dynamics Canada hasn’t modified its benefits because of this potential rise in costs, says McVeigh, but wellness strategies around prevention are key. That can mean knowing about blood pressure, for example, and self-regulating.

“Employers are going to have to get a lot more, if they aren’t already, into illness prevention or health promotion because you need… with all the employee populations but especially the older population, to be very well aware and making sure they’re as healthy as they can be.”

Marilyn Tyfting, vice-president of HR at Telus International
The wholly owned subsidiary of Telus in Vancouver has 16,000 global employees

As a young company only eight years old, Telus International hasn’t faced some of the challenges around older workers more established companies might have.

“This is a new issue for us so we are not in throes of having a large portion of our population retire and take knowledge with them,” says Marilyn Tyfting, Vancouver-based vice-president of HR at the wholly owned subsidiary of Telus.

“But clearly it’s something we are aware of and planning for because it’s important to understand the knowledge that that group of employees has and has developed over time, and ensuring that that knowledge is transferred within the organization before older workers are at retirement age and choose to leave.”

Most of those folks are in IT or network, or places where the company needs to be concerned about and focused on knowledge transfer to other folks, she says.

“Telus International, as a whole, is a very young organization so we are just on the cusp of finding team members in our different regions around the world who have 10, 12, 15 years of service.”

But the 15,000-employee company still has older workers on its radar, along with other demographics.

Understanding those generations and valuing what they bring to the workplace makes that workplace a much better place to be, says Tyfting, adding older workers have different characteristics and make decisions differently.

“Older workers tend to look for a significant amount of information and analyze data and cover all the bases before they make a decision, whereas millennials grew up in a world of instantaneous information, instant access to online everything. And I think putting those generations together creates a work environment where they learn from each other, and see the value of both of those approaches,” she says.

“Then, overall as a team, we become better at what we do by appreciating and valuing and incorporating those different approaches.”

The different generations can also rally around the company’s goal of excellent customer experience, which helps with engagement, says Tyfting. It’s also important to ensure the different groups collaborate and work well together.

“You have to be proactive about that. We have to create online opportunities for people to be social and share information and to build relationships because that’s what the younger generations like, but we also need to be very conscious of older generations that might not have the same affinity to that type of social media and build an intact team project and social face-to-face activities for them as well, to build these relationships and share information and collaborate.”

In keeping older workers engaged, it’s about understanding what they expect from their employer and their career, she says.

“For boomers… they’re team-focused, they want to be part of a group, they want to be part of a team and they want recognition,” says Tyfting.

“They’re interested probably more in title and status than the millennials or the gen-Y crowd. They are loyal to an organization and we need to understand those things and build recognition opportunities around that.”

That means having enough flexibility in policies and how leaders manage and lead their teams to ensure they can tweak recognition, performance management and coaching.

“Boomers and older generations have an expectation for a fairly formal process, they want to have clear objectives set for them, they want to have regular and consistent scheduled feedback and discussions, they want documentation of their results — if you want to speak in generalities — whereas millennials just want a flash text to tell them how they’re doing and if they’re doing well or not,” she says. “So, to keep team members engaged, you need to be very conscious of how they would like to be treated in this environment.”

But there are also elements of a workplace that transcend the generations, says Tyfting, such as learning and development, leadership development and corporate social responsibility.

Daniel Watson, CHRO at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
The administrative arm of the Treasury Board is based in Ottawa and has nearly 400 employees

Workers over age 55 make up about one-fifth (17 per cent) of the federal public service in Canada, according to Daniel Watson, CHRO of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.

“Our workplace is a little bit older on average than some others in the Canadian economy.”

Nevertheless, this demographic is highly valuable, he says.

“These are people who have great experience, a great history of dedication, who have developed lots of skills and ability and maybe, most importantly, wisdom over time,” he says.

“So the word I would usually use (in describing them) is an asset.”

But it’s interesting that people sometimes talk about this age group as though they are an area of liability, says Watson.

“It is funny the language people use sometimes — these are some of our wisest, most capable, experienced people and they add enormously to the work we do within the larger community.”

A lot of what the secretariat does is about managing a complexity of issues, of relationships and of expectations, says Watson.

“There is a certain skill set and set of assets that flows from just having been through it many times before and knowing what the signals are to pay attention to, knowing which things you don’t need to be as worried about,” says Watson of older workers.

“These are people that, very frequently, others in the system turn to either for formal guidance or, in other cases, they turn to them just to see how they’re reacting. And if these folks are sort of keeping their heads about them and are able to do so because of the experience that they have… it actually has a stabilizing and steadying influence on the organization as a whole.”

The public service is really a microcosm of Canadian society, so there are a broad range of people working there — of all ages, says Watson.

“The organization has to learn to work well with all of its team members, but it’s not been an issue where we have found that age is a particular barrier or challenge,” he says.

“People bring different sets of skill sets, experiences and outlooks, and one of the things that is very important for us is diversity of the federal public service — diversity linguistically, of experience, diversity of skill set, diversity of age — and it’s something that’s drilled into all public servants, is the importance of bringing that full range of views to any issues.”

Engaging older workers is not really a problem because the 400-employee organization deals with all kinds of issues — from food safety to negotiating land claims to immigration — that keep employees interested, says Watson.

“Having a mandate that is as broad as we have allows people a range of opportunities you’re not going to find in a lot of other places.”

Any older workers who are restless and looking for a new challenge have plenty of options in the public service, he says.

And while every generation hears complaints about younger people not being able to move up the ladder quickly, the public service loses about 10,000 people every year, plus or minus 1,000, so it needs to hire that same number each year, says Watson.

“There’s more than enough work to be done.”

Sudha Dwivedi, vice-president of HR at PHH Arval
The Mississauga, Ont.-based fleet management company has 200 employees in Canada

A strong corporate culture helps make for a strong, diverse workforce at PHH Arval, according to Sudha Dwivedi, vice-president of HR. For that reason, older workers aren’t a particular concern at the fleet management company.

“We’ve got a really strong corporate culture and we’re really committed in creating a very positive experience for all of our employees, regardless of the generation that they’re in.”

Appreciation of long-term employees is evident in a “wall of fame” at the company that features headshots of all the employees, grouped by years of service.

“We can see our tenure from 10 years’ plus on the wall is just getting larger and larger because the culture’s so strong,” she says.

Every diverse group, be it age or gender, brings different needs and experiences to the organization, says Dwivedi, who has been at the Mississauga, Ont.-based company for five years.

“We really believe having employees from… the 60-plus or boomer generation provides a really great learning experience to our younger or even less experienced employees.”

Older workers not only have experience from their current job but also from their whole industry in terms of knowledge and networks in the marketplace, she says.

“They’re very strong because they’ve been in the industry for a long time, they know the company, they know the job, so those type of networking pieces really strengthen our organization.”

More experienced employees at PHH Arval, which has 200 employees in Canada and about 1,000 in the United States, help to mentor and coach employees who are more junior by age or experience.

“What I love about our employees that are really tenured in the organization is they have something I call tribal knowledge… because when you’re training a new employee or coaching them, not everything is in the training manual. And you only get that by being in the industry or the company for a period of time. So that type of coaching is really important,” says Dwivedi.

And the knowledge exchange goes both ways.

“Every generation learns from each other, so the boomer generation has an opportunity to learn from gen Ys as much as our gen Ys get to learn from them. So the learning opportunities are present for, really, all the generations,” she says.

When it comes to younger employees keen to move up the corporate ladder, the company has plenty of opportunities for everyone.

“We are a living, breathing, dynamic organization so change is constant. So whenever there’s change, that creates opportunities, so we’ve got workers that would be considered older… that are being promoted, whether that’s up the ladder or across into another function in the organization,” says Dwivedi. “So that change creates opportunities across the entire company.”

While it’s understandable some people are postponing retirement because of the rough economy, that’s not really been a trend at PHH Arval, she says.

“Folks are working until the time that they decide they want to retire… it’s just a normal course of business.”

And when it comes to health costs, and potentially higher ones for more senior workers, the company is committed to employee wellness, says Dwivedi. That means a slew of programs are offered and people can pick and choose how they want to participate, based on their individual needs.

“People today are, in general, more healthy at the age of 65 than they were probably 30 years ago,” she says. “We’re more aware about health issues and what that means to us in general, the general population.”

PHH Arval does forecasting every year in regards to looking at its benefits program in Canada, and it carries out a formal employee survey to make sure it’s offering plans that cater to folks of different age groups, says Dwivedi, adding nothing has changed dramatically.

Safia Karcouche, director of human resources at Gexel
The 800-employee company based in Montreal provides communication services through customer service contact centres

At its five customer service contact centres, Gexel has relatively few older workers. Three-quarters of the 800 employees are younger, according to Safia Karcouche, director of HR at Gexel in Montreal.

But older employees are definitely appreciated.

“Ideally, in our industry and in our company, those are the kinds of people we target, not only because of their stability but also because of their loyalty, and also they’re very customer service-oriented compared to the new generation,” she says.

“This kind of population, they don’t have as many obligations as less older populations, so they’re available to work until 10 (p.m.) versus a mum who has kids to pick up from school.”

The only issue with older workers can be their technical expertise, particularly as many of Gexel’s customers are in the telecom industry. Today, technological changes happen on a weekly basis so it’s often a matter of training and retraining employees — and older workers can take longer to absorb the information, says Karcouche.

But once they’ve taken in the information, it stays, she says.

“They’re people who have big values, they have good experience,” says Karcouche. “They have a certain credibility and they’re able to customize the service… they have good common sense.”

Older workers are also loyal to the company and have a better understanding of certain rules than junior candidates do, such as adhering to schedules, she says.

“They’re rarely late,” she says. “They have an understanding of certain values that… the new generation just don’t get.”

As for any potential conflicts among the various generations, it’s not really a big issue at Gexel, largely because there are so few older workers, says Karcouche.

But the company emphasizes respect, which doesn’t have an age, gender, race or hierarchy, she says.

“Those are our values and we ensure that they understand them and adhere to them.”

And when it comes to employee engagement, Gexel does target the more senior employees — though many of them are just grateful to have a job, she says.

Karcouche likes to take advantage of their expertise, such as having them coach new employees or bringing them into a training room to talk about their experience.

“The only thing we can ensure is to offer a respectful environment, treat them with respect, acknowledge their seniority,” she says.

Workers with longer job tenure also can pick their work schedule, so that definitely helps with engagement, says Karcouche — as do the challenges around financial security once work ends.

Most of the employees at Gexel did not get a higher degree of education, so they have had low- to medium-range salaries, she says.

“Retirement for them is a threat rather than a relief.”

In terms of benefits, Gexel has definitely had conversations about the higher health costs for older workers, says Karcouche, but they’re not really an issue because these workers make up such a small percentage of the total workforce.

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *