Re-engaging the prematurely retired

Manitoba-born program targets middle-aged employees in bid to help businesses, particularly rural ones, find much-needed talent

When Graham Starmer, president of the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce, ran into a director from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) a year-and-a-half ago, he mentioned a problem that small businesses in primarily rural parts of Manitoba were having in succession planning.

The problem was threefold, he explained.

First, businesses were having trouble finding a local source of employees other than high school-aged students — a labour force whose experience and availability are limited. Second, rural businesses lacked a reliable “second tier” to leave in charge while owners went on vacation. Many shop owners, as a result, hadn’t seen holidays in a number of years. And, third, a mentorship drive employers in rural Manitoba communities were trying to implement wasn’t working out due to the difficulty in finding mentors.

“Rural employers came to us a few years ago with this set of challenges and said that human resource recruitment in the non-urban centres was becoming a critical concern,” said Starmer.

The thought was acquiring older employees with more social skills, life experience and maturity was key in helping rural small business thrive in the immediate as well as long-term future.

But where to look? Middle-aged employees weren’t trading in their professional careers for part-time jobs at the local hardware store. There were, however, many who left the workforce early in the third quarter of their adult working lives, some prematurely, and now either had time on their hands or a shortfall in retirement funds (or both). It was these restless retirees and underemployed workers between the ages of 50 and 65 the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce identified as a possible solution.

“While Manitoba is strong in immigration, we found not many new Canadians leave the urban centres. Then we got the idea that, due to the economic downtown in 2008, there might be some need for some of the retired people to return to the workforce,” said Starmer. “I mentioned it to the director of the HRSDC and suggested that we needed to do something about the critical lack of potential employees in our rural communities. She agreed there was a definite need to do some intervention.”

Two-year pilot program

After the Manitoba Chambers submitted a proposal in October 2009, HRSDC green-lit the ThirdQuarter program through the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills. The agency provided $2.3 million for a two-year pilot and suggested the project go nationwide to gather research on how best to serve small business with human resource recruitment.

The pilot will run in 16 communities overall, spread out over British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Atlantic Canada. The towns of Arborg, Thompson and Winkler, Man., announced the beginning of their programs in May 2010 and Humboldt, Sask., launched its campaign on July 8. The program is run centrally out of Winnipeg with community co-ordinators driving the campaigns locally.

“The number one measure we’re trying to see is how many third-quarter workers that we can re-engage back into the workforce,” said Michael Stewart, national ThirdQuarter program director. “Second to that is trying to capture as many workers and as many businesses in the community as possible. The metrics are there. The sub-metrics will be in measuring the potential skills gap and to work on up-skilling to bring those up.”

No resumés: An untraditional way to match employees, employers

A key component of ThirdQuarter is its skills and networking website, where both businesses and jobseekers aged 50 to 65 register their interest. Rather than submitting a resumé, a jobseeker answers a questionnaire and builds a profile based on hobbies and personal experiences, rather than on work history. They are then matched with an appropriate employer.

“This is not a typical employer-employee website — we’re trying to use a design for essential skills that are about passion. How can you identify that on a standard resumé? We don’t think you can,” said Starmer.

Perhaps a small birdhouse manufacturer in Winkler, Man., needs a part-time person, for example. The ThirdQuarter employee bank would point the company to a 62-year-year-old retired chartered accountant living in the community who wants to get out of the house in the afternoon and has a passion for woodworking. It would be a perfect match and one that wouldn’t easily be made through a traditional job application.

“We’re focused on trying to match based on essential skill level,” said Stewart. “As we move forward, we’re moving to a recognized prior learning system, building that system so that it’s user-friendly, intuitive and easy to navigate with a minimal amount of barriers. We’re also trying to find a common language that both the workers and employers can use.”

At the end of the two-year pilot, which wraps in April 2012, the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce will present the research to the HRSDC, which will then decide if an expanded second phase of the project receives the go-ahead.

“Ultimately, everything we’re trying to do is in a manner that would make it sustainable beyond two years. The most exciting part of this program is the potential and capacity for growth,” said Stewart.

How communities are responding

In Regina, the largest community and only capital city to participate, Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve McLellan is keeping an eye on the types of people who are participating in the program.

He identified two profiles he thought would emerge: First, people who retire with enough money to enjoy their retirement but are idle and want to contribute; and people who are underemployed or whose retirement savings are insufficient to enjoy themselves.

“One of the reasons I wanted to include Regina is because we have the Crown and public sector people with good pensions — that may change their desire of what they want to do in retirement,” said McLellan. “I suspect Regina will have more people looking to utilize some of their free time, whereas in Humboldt, we’ll have more folks looking to supplement their incomes.”

In either case, there is still work to do in terms of changing an employer’s expectation of what type of employee it has access to, he said.

“If you can get someone older who wants to fill the need, the ThirdQuarter is the workforce opportunity that human resource professionals should be keen to mine,” said McLellan.

In Humboldt, that is Patti Durand’s job. As community co-ordinator for the ThirdQuarter program in the central-Saskatchewan town of 6,000, Durand meets with local businesses daily.

“That’s my role — to speak with business about that potential and possibility,” she said. “And ask them to change their assumptions about who fits best into what job and how.”

George Penner, community co-ordinator in Winkler, Man., has set up a meeting with the local HR council to get more businesses interested. While most seem receptive, he’s been disappointed with how many have actually registered, he said. He’s had about 40 jobseekers sign up and only one dozen or so businesses, though with the Winkler economy coming out of a downturn, he expects that to change.

“The idea is that there’s an untapped labour force we need to keep engaged,” said Penner. “How can we re-frame the third quarter thing to make it attractive to industry leaders to re-design and restructure in order to accommodate these workers that on many levels they need? That’s our challenge here. It’s not necessarily the preferred route to go for many employers.”

Allen Warren is a Regina-based freelance writer.

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