Retirees get back to work

But do employers appreciate their value?
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/31/2011

For three years, Les Dakens has enjoyed his own style of retirement, playing golf and tennis while also being an executive coach in human resources and doing charity work. But in late 2010, he was offered a tantalizing job — senior vice-president and chief HR officer at Maple Leaf Foods in Toronto.

The position was appealing for several reasons. For one, Dakens had 20 years of experience at a food company. He also liked that the head of HR would have a strong relationship with the CEO, as was the case when he worked at CN Rail as senior vice-president of HR. There was also an opportunity to take HR to the next level at the company.

Dakens’ wife said if he lived another 30 years, and worked five of those 30 years, this job would be a drop in the bucket. It was too hard to resist, so Dakens, 56, stepped out of retirement to accept the position at the end of 2010.

“(Maple Leaf has) got a transformational strategy that they’re executing, they’re at the beginning stage of it,” he said. “So it’s a great time to come in and be part of helping to execute on that strategy.”

Dakens’ move is part of a larger trend — many older workers are either postponing their departure from work or coming out of retirement to get back in the game, in some form. Of those Canadians who plan to retire, more than two-thirds (69 per cent) intend to work during retirement, according to a recent Scotiabank survey of 1,011 people. Most cite the desire to be mentally active (72 per cent) and socially active (57 per cent) though more than one-third (38 per cent) point to financial necessity.

“If you disengage intellectually, it’s going to have a significant impact on your well-being, your sense of work, enjoyment of life,” said Dakens. “You can only play so much golf, tennis and bridge.”

Another survey by ad agency Bensimon Byrne also found only one-third of Canadians expects to retire before 65.

“That was a real eye-opener for us, was how many people, the majority, expect to work well past what has been deemed to be the official retirement age,” said Jack Bensimon, president of the agency in Toronto.

In the previous generation, the majority of people retired at age 57. Now, people’s expectations are 62, he said, with one-half working past 65 and 20 per cent working past 70.

“Those are some dramatic changes,” said Bensimon. “This baby boomer generation, they’ve redefined society at every life stage, so why should we expect it should be any different going forward?

“Businesses are going to have to adapt to the aging workforce and figure out how they’re going to accommodate those who want and need to work — really it’s more about need than want — well into their later years.”

But with all the talk of a looming labour shortage, largely because of aging baby boomers leaving the workforce, having employees work longer can only help employers.

“With their wealth of skills, knowledge and experience, older workers must be recognized as tremendous assets for businesses in a country facing a labour supply crunch, in day-to-day operations and in the transferring of human capital and knowledge to younger workers,” said the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s recent report Canada’s Demographic Crunch: Can Underrepresented Workers Save Us? “The notion that older workers are expendable or less useful, still prevalent in some areas, must be dispelled.”

The great value that older workers present is much more apparent today, said Mathias Hartpence, director of international policy, skills and immigration at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

“In the past, we were in a situation where there was a very large number of baby boomers entering the workforce so there was this glut of available and often very well-educated or very skilled minds and hands available to supplement or replace older workers,” said Hartpence. “But that’s not the case anymore.”

Many of Dakens’ peers are retiring from senior roles where they have been for quite some time. As a result, there are not a lot of people readily trained to take over, said Dakens.

“There’s a lot of companies, both in the U.S. and Canada, where they’re going to lose at the top of the house, in a fairly short period of time, a lot of experience,” he said.

That’s why Maple Leaf Foods was keen to hire someone with experience.

“I want to leverage all the experience I have so, in a faster time frame than perhaps in previous jobs, I can have an impact,” said Dakens.

But timing makes a difference, he said. It’s unlikely companies will be keen to hire many 65 to 70 year olds.

“You’ve got that sweet spot of people, call them baby boomers, who have retired in their mid-50s and if you get them to come back into the workforce by age 60, then you’ve got a long enough period to leverage them,” he said. “If it’s a five-year window, that’s a pretty small time frame, so you’re going to have a greater sense of urgency to try and drive change, to do what you have to.”

Almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of 350 company managers in Quebec said they considered it important for their company to have measures to keep experienced workers aged 55 and older on the job, according to a recent survey by the Quebec Employers Council.

A majority (79 per cent) were willing to reduce work hours and 78 per cent would offer greater flexibility in terms of work hours to hold on to their experienced labour force. And 79 per cent agreed the federal and provincial governments should make changes to public pension plans to encourage experienced workers to prolong their stay on the job market.

To attract and retain older workers, it’s all about being flexible as an employer. Dakens knows of one manufacturing company that was keen to bring back a 62-year-old employee full time to groom a more junior associate. As a compromise, the retiree agreed to work every second week.

“That turned out to be a very good solution for everyone,” said Dakens. “This person became the insurance policy to guarantee the younger person coming in would get mentored and developed appropriately, so it’s a very good strategy.”

However, for many of Dakens’ peers, part-time consulting is preferred, he said.

“That’s probably the more common approach to taking advantage of people who’ve got the experience, still have the fire in the belly, the passion for it but aren’t really committed to working full time,” said Dakens.

However, Dakens took his new job at Maple Leaf Foods on a full-time basis.

“I don’t have to be doing this so if I’m going to go back and work, it’s going to be flat-out for the next number of years.”

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