Tapping into the Senior Market

By Lin Grensing-Pophal August 7, 2019
Tapping into the Senior Market

​In 25 U.S. cities with a population of 200,000 or more, at least 20 percent of city residents over age 65 are still working—and that's a stat that is likely to grow. As the unemployment rate continues to hover at record-low levels and employers are increasingly challenged to fill positions, especially those requiring specialized skills and experience, the senior labor market holds value that many are finding they can't afford to overlook. Whether they want to retain senior workers or reach out to senior applicants to fill open positions, companies are finding that the senior market can provide a reliable and valuable source of talent.

Willis Towers Watson's 2018 Longer Working Careers survey found that 80 percent of employers view older employees as crucial to their success. And employers are understandably concerned about the potential loss of talent when older workers retire. More than half (54 percent) believe the loss of talent due to retiring workers will be more significant than other labor market risks over the next five years. Fifty percent expect to face challenges in finding workers with the knowledge and skills needed over the next five years, and 48 percent worry about losing organization-specific knowledge. Retaining existing employees at or near retirement is an important first course of action for employers today.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Employing Older Workers]

Many Employees Choose to Work Longer

The good news for employers is that a growing number of retirement-age workers are staying on the job.

"While many older workers choose to stay in the workforce for economic reasons, an increasing number are staying based on lifestyle preferences," said Elizabeth L. Malatestinic, SHRM-SCP, a senior lecturer in human resource management at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business in Indianapolis. "They look forward to retirement, but once the reality of having all that time on their hands hits, they start looking for something to do. Many take on new jobs or even second careers."

Robin Ryan, the author of Retirement Reinvention: Make Your Next Act Your Best Act (Penguin Books, 2018), which covers seniors in the workforce and the important role they play, said 72 percent of the Baby Boomer generation plans to work past retirement age.

Skills Gaps May Exist

Many older workers are highly skilled and looking to return to the workforce after finding that retirement is not as stimulating as they hoped. In some cases, though, these workers may have some knowledge gaps, especially if they've been out of the workforce for a while.

Ellen Mullarkey, a vice president with Messina Staffing in Chicago, said she noticed this among strong candidate resumes that would cross her desk.

"I wanted to propose them to my client but knew my client would have hesitations," she said. 

Instead, she opted for a new type of role for prospective employees: returnships. She worked with her client to develop a program "that would be a combination of training and probationary period for people returning to work after extended periods of time." The program lasted 12 weeks and included a rotation period among three departments, along with training and review. Three candidates, all older than 65, were selected to go through the pilot. 

The program was a great success, Mullarkey said.

"All three candidates were hired and stayed for at least five years before retiring. Since then, we have worked with almost 10 more clients to incorporate such returnship programs."

Understanding and Delivering What Seniors Value

Seniors may crave the stimulation and interaction that being in the workforce provides. They want jobs that are fulfilling yet flexible, Ryan said. 

Employers are taking steps to provide a workplace environment that offers the culture that seniors crave. According to Willis Towers Watson's research, a majority of employers have adopted or plan to adopt a number of senior-friendly strategies:

  • Well-being enhancements, such as financial and retirement planning programs.
  • Flexible employment.
  • Consulting arrangements.
  • Phased retirement, in which employees work fewer hours per week in exchange for flexibility.

"Retirement is as much a physical, social and emotional decision as it is a financial decision," said Lauren Hoeck, director of retirement with Willis Towers Watson. Having conversations with employees can help to create a proactive plan to address potential retirements and identify opportunities for both employees and the organization.

Being Flexible and Creative in Meeting Senior—and Other—Employees' Needs

"It can take a little brainstorming, but solutions are as unique as each company," Malatestinic said. Phased retirement is one option for some companies. "Other companies, such as CVS, get really creative and offer 'snowbird' options, allowing employees—including pharmacists—to work in locations with warmer climates during the cold winter months."

Thinking about jobs from the perspective of an employee who is near retirement or at retirement age can help employers come up with solutions that can represent a win-win for both the company and its workers, she said.

There can be a flip side to older workers' staying in the workforce longer, and it should not be overlooked, Hoeck cautioned. Sometimes these workers may serve as barriers to other employees who hope to move up in the organization.

In some cases, she added, when older employees linger more for financial than other reasons, their productivity and engagement may suffer—as will the productivity and engagement of other members of the workforce. Having a clear understanding of likely retirement patterns and areas of potential vulnerability are important for managing the overall engagement and productivity of the entire workforce.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.



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