Every smart leader today understands the value of a highly trained and skilled workforce that can deliver a significant competitive advantage to the organization. Many traditional organizations too often focus only on younger workers, not understanding that the value mature workers bring is more important than ever.
Mature workers bring experience, industry and company-specific knowledge, as well as a highly developed professional network. They can be among the workforce’s most experienced, skillful and reliable contributors. However, many leaders don’t truly appreciate older workers’ value and, without intending to, may even create incentives for them to leave. Organizations that understand the benefits mature workers can offer the workforce, and develop and implement programs and policies that meet their unique interests and needs, can enjoy a significant competitive advantage over those that do not.
There are many good business reasons to retain and re-energize older employees, but perhaps the most significant one is the percentage of the workforce they represent and the effect they could have on the organization. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 31.5 million workers in the workforce older than the age of 55, and, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM, most of those workers are in leadership and management positions that could lead to a leadership and/or knowledge and experience crisis.
Holding On to Mature Workers
Some industries that employ a large number of technical workers or technicians are looking at up to 50 percent or more of their technical workforce retiring in the next five to 10 years. These individuals have gained their deep knowledge of the company’s key equipment and technologies during their career. For example, in the telecom industry, retired technicians often have to be pulled out of retirement to work as contractors or teachers because they were the only ones who understood how to work important legacy equipment.
Retaining experienced staff can help circumvent massive retirements, avoiding a potential leadership crisis that would otherwise occur as significant portions of the workforce retire simultaneously. Employers also will have fewer unfilled positions and continued access to key institutional knowledge. And there is no need to invest to hire and train new workers, all of which adds up to a significant competitive advantage for companies savvy enough to take the time to understand what is important to this workforce demographic.
For instance, mature workers bring different viewpoints and interests to the workforce. They may not face the same large financial obligations as younger workers do with mortgages and families to support. Many mature workers also say that they want to do something meaningful and that they want to enjoy social relationships in the workplace. With this in mind, it is important to make sure mature workers are in the right positions to use their unique strengths, skills and talent.
Mature workers also value flexible work schedules. According to the AARP’s 2013 “Staying Ahead of the Curve” study, 70 percent of workers over 50 surveyed wanted a flexible work schedule. However, according to a December 2014 SHRM report, less than half of employers have practices in place to enable workers to shift to part time, and only 37 percent allow them to take on new and less-stressful positions.
Some of the most common flexible work arrangements include phased retirement, reduced hours, job sharing, telecommuting, seasonal work, flextime and compressed work schedules.
Companies that understand the value employees place on a flexible work schedule develop approaches to meet the unique needs of their workers. For example, Marriott International created “flex coupons,” which allow the company’s associates in its reservations centers to log into an automated system and sign up for time off in hourly or daily increments. The company also offers downtime without pay to staff in reservations centers during slower times in the form of extended breaks, shorter shifts, leaving early or extra days off.
Turn Mature Workers Into Teachers
Companies also might consider transitioning mature workers into teaching roles, which benefit both employee and employer. Employees who serve as trainers, coaches or mentors may feel the company recognizes the importance of their contribution to the organization. Coaching and mentoring also can offer the employee more scheduling flexibility and a more relaxed environment where there is less stress and responsibility. At the same time, the organization can maintain its access to the mature workers’ knowledge and experience.
It is also important to provide learning and leadership development for the employees who manage and critique workers who are older than they are. Younger managers often say age gaps are one of the most challenging aspects of their job. These managers can find it difficult to offer constructive feedback to workers who may be older than their own parents, particularly if they were raised in an environment where they were taught to “respect their elders.”
Central Baptist Hospital has successfully implemented a widespread program focused on mature workers to help them address an intense shortage of nurses brought on by an increase in service demand in the health care industry.
According to April 2013 data from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, the nearly 1 million registered nurses older than 50, or about one-third of the current workforce, will reach retirement age over the next 10 to 15 years. The shortage is expected to intensify as baby boomers age and the need for health care grows. Compounding the problem is the fact that nursing schools across the country are struggling to expand capacity to meet the rising demand since the Affordable Care Act was passed.
Central Baptist’s focus on supporting the mature workforce was showcased in a 2012 report from the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. Some elements of the company’s initiative included:
- Part-time seasonal positions with health care benefits to match those of full-time employees.
- The ability to move to part-time while remaining at the same position or level.
- The ability to transfer to jobs with reduced patient care responsibilities, such as a floor nurse position that takes on fewer patients but helps with discharges and quality assurance metrics.
- Specific positions with shorter shifts, such as a float nurse working four-hour shifts to cover lunch breaks.
- Job sharing by shift or position or role.
- Online self-scheduling that accepts requests for specific schedules and days off and posts monthly department schedules to facilitate shift changes.
The company also launched a career coaching pilot program targeted to midcareer to late-careernurses. The program offered RNs support for transitioning to different nursing roles or schedules as well as continuing their education and moving into other health care practice areas.
According to the company, the hospital’s flexibility strategy and career coaching delivered tangible results. For instance, turnover is well below the national benchmark for health care and the vacancy rate was 1.8 percent hospitalwide in 2011. In addition, for RNs age 45 and older, the overall favorable workplace satisfaction ratings increased to 88 percent in 2010 from 65 percent in 2006.
While many organizations work with younger workers to create career-path resources, many do not understand the value of creating similar programs to help workers at midcareer or late-career stages. Mature workers in particular may be interested in learning about lateral moves that could allow them to apply their existing skills in new ways.
Mature workers frequently seek new challenges through second careers. Helping them understand and envision new opportunities within an organization can reignite their interest and enthusiasm for continuing to work instead of retiring.
Not only is a higher percentage of today’s workers mature, but also the trend will continue as adults put off full retirement, opting instead for phased retirement or consulting to stay on the job as long as they can contribute and enjoy flexibility in their scheduling and positioning.
Organizations that understand this trend, and how to not only retain but also engage these workers who bring irreplaceable organizational knowledge, will deliver a competitive advantage that helps them succeed.