Greying workforce an opportunity to be grasped

Sep 22 2005 by Nic Paton Print This Article

The prospect of a rapidly ageing workforce in the West need not be all doom and gloom and could in fact be a major opportunity for big corporations - if only they are prepared to grab it - a U.S study has suggested.

The research by executive networking group The Conference Board has looked at work being carried out by a range of big blue-chip names in the U.S, including BP, Ernst & Young, Ford, IBM, JP Morgan Chase and Shell International.

With some 64 million baby boomers (more than 40 per cent of the U.S. labour force) poised to retire in large numbers by the end of this decade, industries are already facing labour and skills shortages, the research, not surprisingly, recognised.

But what forward-thinking companies are doing is recruiting people into flexible work-arrangements and retaining workers they already have through similar schemes.

They are also putting in place phased retirement plans for these workers aged 55 years or older, many of whom have skills that are difficult to replace, said the research.

"Such actions are putting these companies ahead of competitors who view the aging workforce largely as a burden putting strains on pension plans and healthcare costs," it concluded.

Report co-author Lorrie Foster, director of research working groups at The Conference Board, added: "The maturing workforce is often seen as an issue to be dealt with instead of a great opportunity to be leveraged.

"The skills and knowledge mature workers possess can be utilized to great advantage by a company that knows itself well and can identify its weak areas that can be bolstered by the right mature workers," she added.

Industries currently feeling the greatest pain in terms of skills shortages were oil, gas, energy, healthcare and government, she explained.

Leading companies in these sectors were increasingly turning to mature workers to ensure future growth and productivity.

There was also a growing recognition that a maturing workforce could have a positive impact on both customer satisfaction levels and profitability.

But this did not happen without effective initiatives designed to make it easier for different generations of workers to work better together.

"Companies that haven't yet faced human capital shortages are not rushing to make institutional changes to accommodate workers nearing the traditional retirement age who are still in the workforce," argued the research.

Jeri Sedlar, senior adviser to The Conference Board on mature workforce issues and the other author of the report, added: "But organisations that fail to understand the complexities or recognize the opportunities associated with an aging workforce may risk their ability to stay competitive.

"As more companies feel the pain of knowledge losses caused by retirements in key businesses or functions, those not planning ahead and leveraging their mature workforce will be scrambling," he argued.

More older workers, the research argued, want to remain in their jobs for both personal fulfilment and financial reasons.

In a forthcoming study from The Conference Board more than half of older employees surveyed said they were not planning to retire because they found their jobs interesting.

Significantly, 74 percent also cited not having sufficient financial resources as a reason they were continuing to work, and 60 per cent cited the need for medical benefits.

Working in retirement, once considered an oxymoron, was in fact the new reality.

"Besides wanting to continue doing what they love, reasons economic in nature are also keeping older Americans in the workforce. As a result, the increasingly multiethnic workforce will also become more multigenerational as mature workers want or need to continue to work," said the research.

The traditional linear life plan, where certain years are earmarked for education, work, and then leisure, was fast becoming obsolete, it added.

"Boomers want to work on terms that are customised to their needs. The goal of many is to 'ratchet back' and give up responsibility, yet stay involved and active in business. In addition, lifelong learning is not only desirable, but necessary to achieve their work goals," it said.

New work arrangements therefore needed to be created that capitalised on this desire to remain engaged but not working at full pelt, said Sedlar.

"The need to create a corporate culture as well as learning institutions welcoming to all generations is becoming more apparent," he added.

By 2010, the number of 35-44 year olds (those normally expected to move into senior management ranks) would have declined by 10 per cent, said the research.

Also by 2010, the number of U.S. workers aged 45-54 will have grow by 21 per cent, while the number of 55-64 year-olds will have expand by more than half (52 per cent).

Half of companies polled felt the departure of mature workers presented potential "knowledge vulnerabilities".

A one-third had conducted workforce planning studies and identified potential knowledge areas where they could be vulnerable.

Half had some form of mentoring programme in place to share and transfer knowledge.

Certain industries, found The Conference Board, were more concerned with the impending "brain drain" stemming from the withdrawal of some mature workers from the workforce.

"The technology and pharmaceuticals industries generally express worries about the development of new products and services and anticipate a drain in experienced engineers, key account sales representatives and senior managers," it said.

Flexible programmes were generally present in industries that considered the maturing workforce to be a very significant issue, it added.

"The majority of survey participants perceive a Catch-22 Ė wanting to offer something special for mature workers but feeling unable to do so in a way that doesn't seem discriminatory," the research added.

Key strategies recommended by the research included identifying potential gaps and knowledge transfer needs, broadening succession planning thinking and checking communications mechanisms and messages for an intergenerational approach.

It also suggested reviewing training history, becoming an "employer of choice" for all generations, encouraging better financial planning among employees and building a "retiree network".

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research also recommended employers offering benefits of interest to mature workers, including long-term care insurance, pre-retirement planning, health and wellness programmes, comprehensive medical coverage, health coverage for retirees and part-time workers and pro-rated benefits for employees on flexible work schedules.