Employers ill-prepared to woo mature workers

Organizations should be targeting workers over age 50, finds Conference Board report

While many employers are anxious about a shrinking workforce, they’re not doing enough to woo the one segment of workers who could really help them: Those over the age of 50.

That’s the conclusion from a report by the Conference Board of Canada, Harnessing the Power: Recruiting, Engaging and Retaining Mature Workers, that looked at 109 mid- to large-sized organizations across the country.

It found few of them, just six per cent, focus on retaining mature workers, while 11 per cent actively try to attract or recruit them.

“I’m not surprised at all,” said Prem Benimadhu, vice-president of governance and HR management with the Conference Board. “There is always a time lag between awareness and execution.”

Two things generally hold employers back — the “full-plate” syndrome and the likelihood a labour shortage will eventually be someone else’s problem, said Benimadhu. Few executives have time to develop demographic-specific hiring strategies, which ultimately leads them to ignore the issue until it reaches a crisis.

Added to that is a “negative retirement mentality” on the part of both employers and the mature workers themselves, he said.

“Most of our human resources policies and practices were fashioned in the 1970s at a time when there was a labour surplus,” he said. “We wanted people to take early retirement. That is something that has created a mindset among leaders in organizations and among mature workers themselves. We’ve had 10, 20 years of brainwashing to believe that after 50 they should start leaving the organization.”

Almost one-half (47 per cent) of employers surveyed consider the aging of the workforce to be an “important or critical issue” within the next 18 months, he said. That concern increases to 77 per cent when looking ahead to the next three to five years. Yet only seven per cent of employers formally consider mature workers a distinct employee group.

“Organizations will need these people,” he said. “There is a huge corporate memory gap that is going to emerge as a result of a massive number of older people leaving.”

What Calgary is doing

It’s a shortage already facing the City of Calgary. The city is Alberta’s second largest employer, with 14,700 full-time and seasonal employees and the average age is 45. Most of them are expected to retire at 55, which would have led to a hiring crisis within the next decade.

Last year, in the face of these looming retirements, the city polled long-time employees about post-retirement plans. The results were surprising: 80 per cent of near-retirees were interested in returning to work post-retirement, as long as the city met their need for flexibility and work diversity.

“We knew there was some interest, based on employee inquiries, but the level of positive response was more than expected,” said Britt Wilson, acting manager of total rewards with the city.

As a result, the city instituted several policies. It can now hire former employees on a consultancy basis or following a 90-day break in service. Some non-unionized workers are also given the option to return to work immediately after retirement for a period of one year. This allows the retirees to collect a full salary plus pension benefits while the city buys time to focus on succession.

Calgary also established an internal employment agency that connects managers with retirees interested in working on short-term, non-union assignments in peak periods, or willing to cover vacations or take on special assignments.

Most employers that actively recruit and engage mature workers are successful, according to the Conference Board survey. Three-quarters of those that said they focus to a “great or very great” extent on this population have found the labour they’re looking for. But those that use the same strategies to recruit a 20-year-old as a 50-year-old report much less success, with only about one-quarter of employers making older hires.

“We have to adapt our policies and practices for the new labour market — and that means greater flexibility,” said Benimadhu.

4 successful strategies

Benimadhu said the four most successful strategies for engaging mature workers are:

• flexible work arrangements including part-time, shortened workweeks or working for blocks of time

• assigning special projects or offering challenging work

• providing mentorship opportunities

• tailoring the total rewards package.

HR policies also have to reflect the raison d’être that draws many mature workers back into the workforce, said Benimadhu.

“The fundamental thing that will retain these people is getting them to appreciate that there’s meaning in the work they do,” he said. “When these people are 55-plus, they’re thinking of making a contribution. They have the money, they have the financial means. They don’t want to work. ‘Give me the opportunity to make a significant contribution to something bigger than the paycheque.’”

Few people know this better than Richard Evin, president of Evin Industries, a Montreal-based uniform manufacturer. His head shipper started there at the age of 63. He’s still there at 80.

“You have a lot of older workers who have put in a lifetime’s worth of work and enjoy the work and the good feeling that comes from it,” he said.

The company’s sales manager is also well past retirement. She’s 75 and nowhere near ready to leave, said Evin. He has made certain accommodations to retain his older staff, such as shortened workweeks, but that’s because of the value he gains from having them on staff.

“You have 40 years of experience of life under your belt,” he said. “That 40 years is extremely valuable to what you can offer an organization.”

Make older workers feel welcome

Aside from implementing demographic-specific strategies to engage mature workers, HR departments must also make them feel welcome, said Benimadhu. Some auto manufacturers in Europe are now equipping plants with robotics that swing the car bodies toward older employees so they can sit, instead of hunching over their work. Even small things, such as including older workers in corporate images, go a long way, he said.

At the City of Calgary, planning and preparing is especially important when re-engaging retirees, said Wilson. But employers should not underestimate the amount of administrative work involved, he said.

“Most human resource information systems are not designed to easily re-engage employees once they have retired,” he said. “Other lessons include being aware of the implications of re-engaging retirees on your health, dental, life-insurance and LTD programs.”

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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