How some companies encourage older workers to stay

05/17/2014 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 4:41 PM

At a time when digital skills are prized and businesses place a premium on youth, some employers subtly seek to push out older workers, denying them raises once awarded routinely, reducing their responsibilities or giving evaluations that are cold and complain of waning productivity.

Then there are the employers who do the opposite. They go the extra mile to assure experienced employees that they are valued and that management is eager for them to stay. Some employers promote innovative programs to show that they appreciate their older employees and don’t want to lose their experience, their rapport with customers or their ability to mentor younger workers.

In one unusual effort to encourage older workers to stay, CVS Caremark offers a “snowbird” program, in which several hundred pharmacists and other employees from northern states are transferred each winter to pharmacies in Florida and other warmer states. Suzanne Fontaine, 66, a certified pharmacy technician at a CVS in Richmond, Rhode Island, said she would have retired years ago if the company had not let her work the winter months at a CVS in Naples, Fla., where she and her husband have a second home.

“It’s a godsend for me,” Fontaine said. “It’s great for the company and for individuals like me who want to stay warm in the winter.”

Fontaine helps her CVS in Naples keep up with the surge in business it experiences during the colder months, and she helps train and mentor newer employees. She works three days a week, often on days when her husband, a retired tool-and-die maker, goes golfing. “We live in a golf community down here. I love it, but I need to do something else,” she said. “I like the job. I like the customers, and it’s an opportunity to earn some money to help pay for our two homes.”

CVS, which does not pay for the snowbirds’ lodging or flights, said the program helped employees and customers. “A good number of our pharmacy customers are going to be mature customers, and as part of our focus on diversity, we want a workforce that reflects our customer base,” said David Casey, CVS’ vice president for workforce strategies. “So it was a no-brainer for us to have a lot of mature workers as part of our overall workforce.”

In another program aimed at retaining older workers, Michelin, the tire maker, lets experienced, white-collar workers stretch out their careers by transitioning them from often-stressful 50- and 60-hour-a-week jobs to less demanding part-time jobs. And the U.S. National Institutes of Health, a federal agency, offers emergency care for employees’ parents, a step beyond the emergency child care offered by many employers. The program helps retain scientists and other workers who may be tempted to quit to care for parents with recurring health crises.

Other employers focus on keeping employees healthy and well trained throughout their careers, with retaining experienced workers as an important goal. Pitney Bowes, a producer of mailing equipment and software, has programs to help workers continually upgrade their skills and offers a six-hour course, “How to Save Your Back.” Fidelity Investments has established health and wellness centers at its operations around the country, offering programs on losing weight, reducing stress and smoking cessation, among other topics.

“Today’s older workers are healthier and a lot more technologically savvy than older workers of previous generations,” said Deborah Banda, AARP’s acting vice president for financial security. “They bring a lot to the workplace; many employers are seeing that. They know that recruiting and retaining older workers is good for their business. If they weren’t good for their business, these employers wouldn’t be doing this.”

“We hear from many employers,” Banda continued, “that older workers are very dependable, they have a commitment to their job, they bring some wisdom to the job. All those traits are very valuable to employers.”

These efforts to retain older workers coincide with two important trends. First, the nation’s over-65 population is growing. That means, among other things, that many companies will, like CVS, want mature workers to serve their customers. Second, more Americans are working later in life, either by necessity, because they cannot afford to retire, or by choice, because many stay healthier longer and like their jobs.

A Gallup poll taken last month found that the average retirement age has jumped in just a few years – to 62, a surprisingly rapid increase from 59 in 2010 – a trend spurred by the recent recession, when retirement savings suffered losses.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 32.2 percent of Americans age 65 to 69 are in the labor force, meaning they are working or looking for work, up from 21.3 percent two decades ago. The percentage of older workers in the labor force has climbed, even as the percentage of younger workers has fallen.

Vita Needle, a manufacturing company in Needham, Mass., is famous for employing older workers. The median age of its workforce is 72, and its oldest employee is 94. Frederick Hartman II, the company’s marketing director, explained why Vita Needle employed so many older workers: “They’ve got a tremendous work ethic that is sometimes harder to find with some of the younger generation. That’s not to say we don’t have some folks in their 20s who do a great job.”

While many people applaud the company, Hartman said, “We’ve had a few complaints that you’re stealing jobs from younger people.”

Larry Minnix, president of LeadingAge, an association of nonprofits that serve the elderly, said many older Americans were eager to continue working, but perhaps not at the same stressful pace.

“There comes a time when you’re not going to continue hitting cleanup for the New York Yankees, but they’ll keep you in their coaching system,” he said. “Older workers might not want to work full time, and many companies are being flexible with them. These workers often play a mentoring role, a leavening role in the organization. They contribute toward a healthy culture in the organization.”

Some experts on aging say the baby-boom generation has changed the definition of retirement. “There’s a joke going around,” said Banda of AARP, “that the new word for retirement is ‘work.’ People are living longer and healthier lives; they want to stay active and engaged. For a lot of boomers, their definition of retirement is cutting down to part time or doing something on a project basis.”

Douglas Brown, 62, worked for 33 years doing marketing for Michelin, typically getting to work at 7 a.m. and heading home at 6 p.m., helping the company sell tires for Porsches, Mercedes-Benzes and other high-performance vehicles. He formally retired from his full-time job in January 2013, but, as part of an arrangement to allow workers to scale back their hours and the demands on them, he resumed work at Michelin three months later.

Now Brown works two days a week at his longtime workplace, the company’s American headquarters in Greenville, S.C., mentoring and advising younger marketing employees, giving them tips on analytics and brand building to help them improve their performance. Exploiting the strong ties he has developed with dealers, he recently spoke to a group of Porsche dealers about the advantages of tires that Michelin developed for the new Porsche 918, a hybrid gasoline-electric vehicle.

“I never really wanted to retire, to go home and sit in a rocking chair,” Brown said. “I wanted to slow down. I wanted to do something that was applicable for my background and experience.”

Unlike many older Americans, Brown said he did not need to continue working for the money. “Growing up with Depression-era parents, you learn to save very well,” he said. He said he liked working part time because he appreciated the “social aspects of work life” and because he still had a passion for the automotive business. Michelin recently sent him to an auto race in California to give a behind-the-scenes tour to a group of auto industry insiders.

Michelin is one of the few employers to receive high marks from both AARP and the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College for being a good employer for older workers. Both groups also praised the National Institutes of Health, while the Sloan Center lauded CVS, Deloitte, Fidelity and the Hartford, among others. The AARP’s 2013 list of the 50 Best Employers cited many hospitals, as well as the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Cornell and George Mason Universities, and Southern Co., a utility.

Marcie Pitts-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center, said that after the recession, many employers are only now stepping back to assess longer-term hiring needs. “When we talk to employers, what they say is they recognize the competencies and skills that older workers bring, particularly those that are very client-facing, because that social capital means a lot in terms of maintaining business,” she said.

Too many employers, she said, still resist hiring – or working to retain – older workers, partly because these workers often have higher health insurance costs and higher salaries and partly because many do not have the digital skills that younger workers have. (But one employer said an advantage of having older employees is that, unlike younger ones, they are not likely to skip work because it is a beautiful beach day and the surf is up.)

“We are seeing more employers start to recognize the value of older workers and institute programs that value them,” Banda said. “But, frankly, we’re still not seeing enough of these employers step up to the plate.”

Many employers are uncomfortable in saying they have special programs aimed at older workers. They worry that might put off younger workers and customers. Instead, many employers say they have universal strategies that aim to please and retain younger and older workers alike. They talk of “intergenerational strategies.”

That is certainly Michelin’s approach. “Rather than say we do specific things for mature workers, we hire people for a career at Michelin, more than for a job,” said David Stafford, chief human resource officer for Michelin North America.

“I would say we have a lot of things that are applicable for all generations,” he continued. “We have a very flexible work policy that can be used for new mothers and new fathers, but also for people to take care of a sick parent.”

Michelin also has a “pre-retirement” program that allows workers age 55 and over to scale back to part time. “These people have a lot of experience, but they don’t want to work 40, 50, 60, 70 hours a week,” he said. “So we offer them flexible work opportunities. At the same time, we have strong mentoring programs. We work really hard, so a person is able to pass their knowledge on to a new one. We’re a multigenerational company.”

Home Depot is known for hiring thousands of older workers; many retired plumbers and construction workers are eager to take part-time jobs there.

“Seniors certainly bring a lot of life experience that we appreciate,” said Tim Crow, Home Depot’s executive vice president for human resources. “They come to the company with an understanding of customer service. They have life skills. A lot of them have owned a home, and they know what it’s like to have to repair things in your home.”

A big advantage of hiring older workers, he said, is that they have considerable flexibility, making it easier for Home Depot managers to piece together their weekly store schedules. Many of Home Depot’s older workers are so knowledgeable that the company has designated thousands of them “associate coaches” to train and mentor younger workers. “It’s based on demonstrated knowledge and a passion to help,” Crow said.

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