Older workers keen on flexibility

Knowledge retention, labour shortage reasons to stay longer
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/15/2010

AltaLink, an electricity transmission company in Calgary, recognizes the value of older workers’ knowledge and experience. As such, the company offers unique work arrangements to encourage these workers to stay on the job past their retirement eligibility, says Don Richards, director of human resources operations at AltaLink.

“A lot of them, when they leave, it’s a big, big loss because they’re so knowledgeable,” says Richards. “To retain them a little bit longer, whether it’s on a part-time basis or job sharing, is really good.”

AltaLink began offering special work arrangements to non-union employees about four years ago, he says.

“In each situation, the employee needs to sit down with the manager and try to figure out something that works for both the employee and the business. But there’s no guarantees that will always be the case,” says Richards. “The focus is for people ready for retirement, but if anybody comes up with a work arrangement that works for both them and the business, we would entertain it.”

The company negotiated retiree retention work arrangements into collective agreements with its two unions in 2007 and again this year, he says. Now, all 600 employees, including the 350 unionized employees, have access to the arrangements.

The unions and the company work collaboratively to approve or decline requests, which are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the business needs and the individual’s skills, competencies and attitudes.

The arrangements can include: reduced, flexible or casual work hours, telecommuting, job sharing, project work and mentoring roles.

“The initial reaction of the union was, ‘We are interested in exploring this opportunity for retirees to be able to continue to work,’” says Doug Cooper, assistant business manager at the United Utility Workers’ Association.

The union was also skeptical about how the arrangements would work in practice, says Cooper, but so far there haven’t been any issues.

While none of the five who are taking advantage of the arrangements (part-time and flexible hours) are union employees, both Richards and Cooper believe the demand will increase among all employees.

“That’s part of the reason we agreed to this in 2007. We foresaw that, in the near future, there would be a need for it as baby boomers started to retire,” says Cooper.

Fifteen per cent of Canadian workers in 2006 were 55 years or older and, for the first time, there were just as many Canadian workers over 40 as under, according to Statistics Canada.

With more older workers and declining birth rates, there are fewer workers to replace retirees. In 2006, there were 1.9 Canadians aged 20-34 entering the workforce for every person aged 55-64 leaving it. This was down from 2.7 in 2001 and 3.7 in 1981, according to Statistics Canada. The recent recession only delayed the looming labour shortage.

“Many companies and sectors are already facing shortages of the talented people they need to remain competitive and grow,” says Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

“The grave concern for Canada’s business community and the well-being of Canadians is that workforce shortages are expected to increase within the present decade as the baby boomer generation retires in droves. The time to act is now.”

The looming demographic crunch, if not addressed, will result in lost business competitiveness, declining economic growth, lower per-capita output and a lower quality of life for Canadians, according to Canada’s Demographic Crunch: Can Underrepresented Workers Save Us?, a new report from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

The report recommends organizations tap into underutilized sources of labour, including young people, Aboriginals, people with disabilities, new Canadians and older workers.

The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) offers older workers creative assignments and roles that enable them to coach people with less experience, says Mary Karamanos, senior vice-president of human resources at BDC.

As employees begin to approach retirement, HR talks to them about considering working for BDC on a project basis or as a mentor for a couple of years after retirement, she says.

“Because there are shortages of seasoned individuals with a depth of knowledge, instead of letting these people walk out the door, we try to have early discussions with them a year, 18 months, before that retirement date to give us enough time to explore and discuss how we might still use them in alternate ways,” says Karamanos.

The Montreal-based company has 1,850 employees with an average age of 41, she says. About 30 retirees are working in unique work arrangements and another 60 are eligible for retirement but haven’t left yet because “they’re enjoying what they’re doing,” says Karamanos.

“Creating opportunities for people in this segment is important because there is real value in leveraging all the knowledge and skill they bring to an organization,” she says.

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