Call it The Great Worker Shortage. The first baby boomers, whose sheer mass has been described as the pig in the demographic python, will reach age 62 in 2008 and start retiring. There won’t be enough so-called baby busters to replace them in the workplace. Several reports predict as many as 10 million more workers will be required by the end of this decade.
Potentially dire circumstances for small companies? Could be. But don’t panic. Do, however, take time to examine your employment needs for the next five years. Specifically, think about hiring the very folks who are traditionally scheduled for retirement.
While 50-plus workers are sometimes maligned as costly, less productive and set in their ways, recent studies upend many stereotypes. And increasingly, companies’ first-hand experiences demonstrate older workers can continue to do the job.
Fortunately for growing companies, there is a happy convergence: More seniors want to work, and employers need their talents. In some cases, their skills are preferred over younger workers.
About eight in 10 boomers plan to work at some time during the traditional retirement years, according to a 2003 AARP/Roper survey. Thirty percent of these “silver collar” employees are expected to work part-time for their own enjoyment. Many relish the social interaction and stimulation of the workplace and the feeling they are contributing to a productive and honorable enterprise.
Another 25 percent of boomers, some still recovering from the devastating stock market losses of several years ago, expect to toil for economic reasons. Many haven’t saved enough for retirement and need to work.
If boomers do indeed work during the traditional retirement years, it will be welcome news for many employers. According to a 2005 AARP survey, 58 percent of HR managers say it is more difficult today than five years ago to find qualified job applicants. More than half of these HR managers believe their companies are likely to confront a shortage of qualified workers in the next five years.
Coincidentally, many older workers are blessed with the skills and assets companies are seeking:
Experience. They have the know-how gleaned from years on the job and weathering business-cycle dips, management trends and different bosses. Their institutional knowledge alone means firms won’t have to spend time and money reinventing the wheel.
Work ethic. According to one AARP study, 50-plus employees are more likely to demonstrate dependability and perseverance and remain task-focused. Those traits offer a good model for younger workers.
Customer service. Many retailers are hiring older employees because they are more emotionally mature and can better relate to customers. Happily, research indicates verbal communication, among other skills, increases with age.
Customer identification. A number of companies with older customers are hiring more seniors because they can identify with clients’ needs.
Loyalty. Unlike younger employees, seniors are less likely to job-hop. And less turnover saves considerable money. One estimate is that it costs 50 percent or more of an individual’s salary to interview and train a new worker for a position
Motivation. Older workers are among the most motivated in the workplace, according to a December 2005 study done by consulting firm Towers Perrin for AARP. In fact, employees over 50 were more motivated to exceed job expectations than younger workers. Highly motivated employees were described as “extremely likely” to satisfy customers, affect product quality and control costs. According to the study, workers 55 and older had an average “motivation score” of 78.4, compared to 71.2 for those 18 to 29. (The average for all ages was 74.8) Companies with highly engaged workers, the study noted, are more likely to exceed their industry-average revenue growth and sport a lower than average cost of goods sold.
While older workers aren’t as likely to deliver mold-breaking new ideas, they are better than their younger brethren at “experimental innovation” — developing fresh ideas that stem from current practices, according to economist David Galenson of the University of Chicago. For balance’s sake, companies need both sets of employees.
Of course, older workers sport some downsides. They have less physical strength and dexterity. One AARP study reported seniors are less willing to learn and perform different tasks. Moreover, employees ages 50 to 65 use on average from 1.4 to 2.2 times as much health care as workers in their late 30s and 40s, according to Towers Perrin’s analysis.
But their attributes often more than counterbalance perceived deficits. For that reason, 50-plus employees should not be ignored, especially during an expected worker shortage. Indeed, some firms are already aggressively seeking older workers. One indication of that pursuit: In 2001, 14 companies applied to be on AARP’s list of top employees for mature workers. Last year, the organization received 145 applications.
Since many seniors won’t have to work, they will be picky about where they end up. Many are attracted to flexible arrangements, including part-time and seasonal work and phased retirement, which enables them to withdraw gradually from the workforce. A 2001 AARP survey said they also want opportunities for training, new experiences, and competitive health care and retirement benefits.
Smaller companies would be well advised to seriously think about their future employment needs today. If they do that, they will be better positioned to compete for the talent, including older employees, who will help them compete in tomorrow’s workplace.