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AARP: Failure To Stem Brain Drain Is a Mistake
 

By Kathy Gurchiek  10/6/2008
 

In an economy where layoffs are increasingly common, it might be hard to view nearly 77 million baby boomers plodding closer to retirement age as any threat to organizations or the workforce.

That’s a mistake, says Ellie Hollander, chief people officer for AARP, who is responsible for HR and organizational learning and performance groups at the association.

Hollander spoke at the Nonprofit Human Resources Conference in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 29, 2008, about workplace strategies for retaining boomers. She delivered her remarks the same day Novations Group, a global consulting organization, released findings showing that a majority of North American employers appear unconcerned over the potential talent loss when boomers retire.

More than one-third of 2,500 senior HR and training executives surveyed don’t expect an unusually large loss of talent with baby boomer retirements, and only 26 percent said their organizations are taking steps to mitigate that loss of talent.

Findings are from an annual Internet survey of HR, training and diversity leaders conducted November 2007.

“Based on either their inaction or failure to see the problem, organizations don’t seem to be losing sleep because of boomer retirements,” Novations consultant Lindsey Schantz said in a press release.

That’s despite the fact that the oldest boomers, born between 1946 ad 1964, are turning 62 in 2008 and becoming eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. By 2010, they will be eligible for Medicare benefits, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

But while few employers are paying attention to a so-called impending brain drain of talent and institutional knowledge, the good news for employers is that more than two-thirds of boomers eligible for retirement plan to continue working, Hollander said.

The challenge for employers is how to retain or attract the boomer demographic.

The first step is knowing your organization’s workforce demographics, information many organizations lack, she said.

This knowledge can inform conversations managers have with employees, she said. Although asking an employee bluntly when he or she plans to retire is inappropriate and appears invasive, she noted, a conversation about career aspirations or concerns can give an organization insight into its employees’ needs.

For example, employees who are part of the sandwich generation—caregivers for children and sick or aging parents—might be interested in staying with the organization if part-time employment or flexible work arrangements are options, Hollander noted.

Flexibility is one of five areas Hollander says are critical to retaining boomers and other older workers. Others are:

  • Providing opportunities for growth and development.
  • Providing competitive retirement benefits.
  • Providing health care benefits, including pre-65 and post-65 retiree health plan seminars.
  • Providing a supportive work environment. This includes promoting a diverse, inclusive workplace where workers feel valued, and emphasizing results over number of hours worked.

Hollander pointed to Best Buy’s experiment with its Results-Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) as an example of an approach that is supportive of all workers, regardless of their generation.

There are no schedules. No mandatory meetings. No impression-management hustles,” an MSNBC report said about the ROWE experiment. “Work is no longer a place where you go, but something you do. It's OK to take conference calls while you hunt, collaborate from your lakeside cabin, or log on after dinner so you can spend the afternoon with your kid.”

AARP’s strategies include the addition of phased retirement-only positions as a way to retain older workers while they make the transition to retirement; a backup care program for workers who are caregivers; and Renewal, a paid four-week sabbatical for qualified employees.

On the January following their seventh year at AARP, employees who have demonstrated solid performance for the previous three years receive an invitation to take a sabbatical within the next 2.5 years. Workers taking the sabbatical are asked to commit to stay another two years with AARP and attend a one-day workshop.

The message, Hollander said, is “we want you to come back feeling recommitted to the organization.” In addition, the program provides other employees the opportunity to cross-train during colleagues’ sabbaticals.

Whatever strategies are taken should be used across the organization to prevent ownership by only one sector of an organization, such as HR, Hollander said.

Novations’ Schantz says organizations that choose not to actively manage the transition of boomers might suffer.

“If boomers feel less engaged or less included as they begin to eye their retirement,” she said, “it is likely to affect their performance long before they actually depart.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

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