How to Prepare for an Aging Workforce

Sourcebook from SHRM offers practical guidance

By Jen Schramm Feb 18, 2016
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Businesses’ talent pools are growing older. Within the next five to 10 years, the majority of the U.S. workforce will be made up of workers over age 40. More members of multiple generations are working together than ever before. And, according to United Nations forecasts, population growth among those ages 65 and older is outpacing the growth of those ages 25 to 64 in most developed nations; globally, the number of older people in the world is projected to be 1.4 billion by 2030.

A new sourcebook from the Society for Human Resource Management can help HR professionals develop strategies to work best with their older employees. Preparing for an Aging Workforce: Strategies, Templates and Tools for HR Professionals examines ways HR leaders can manage the implications of the significant demographic shifts under way.

Vanessa Contreras is vice president of human resources and manufacturing operations at McRoskey Mattress Co., a manufacturer and retailer of premium mattresses and box springs and the subject of one of several case studies in the sourcebook.

“One of the things I realized, after creating employee handbooks and setting up other operations, is that we had an aging workforce. People would be at or near retirement age, and there was no formal plan to address that,” Contreras said. “In our industry, what’s difficult is that most of the information about our products, particularly how they’re made, has been lost over the generations. People gain that knowledge, and they take it with them when they leave.”

Contreras’ experience underscores the need to prepare for the loss of experienced older workers before they leave—and the value of encouraging older workers to stay on the job.

An organization that is making a concerted effort to successfully ride this demographic wave is the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA), another case study featured in the sourcebook. Of the agency’s approximately 64,000 workers, 25 percent are 55 or older, said Reginald Wells, the SSA’s deputy commissioner for human resources.

“Our belief, certainly, is that the employees who have spent 30 to 35 to 40 years with the agency have mastered whatever their responsibility is, and we’ve seen challenges when they retire if we have not prepared for it as well as we should have,” Wells said. “The adage we use in HR is, ‘All ages, all stages.’ It’s our intent to support them from their entry into the organization until their retirement.”

Along with constantly assessing the state of the aging workforce in the organization to be prepared for retirements, the SSA has created programs to help mature workers pass on their knowledge to younger colleagues. SHRM research has shown that most employees are open to working with and learning from older colleagues. Organizations that can retain their older workers get a double benefit of leveraging the skills and experience of mature workers and transferring this valuable knowledge on to the next generation of workers.

One of the ways organizations are attracting and retaining older workers is through offering work arrangements and benefits customized to fit employees at different life stages.

“We built a child care center in the 1980s because many of our folks needed coverage for their kids,” said Dawn Trivette, administrative director of work and family services for Richmond, Va.-based hospital and health care nonprofit Bon Secours. “Some of our older workers said they wished they could have taken advantage of something like that when they were younger. That got us thinking that we needed to take care of our mature workers in different ways.”

Bon Secours’ response was to establish a home health care program for employees’ elderly family members, providing a 50 percent subsidy for coverage as well as resources, referrals, classes and support groups for employees who are caring for elderly relatives. The programs take into account the specific ways elder care can differ from child care, especially the fact that elder care often involves long-distance care.

“We also created a lot of flexibility for dependent care,” Trivette said. “If somebody is called away for a few months to another state, for example, we make an accommodation.” For many mature workers, access to these types of benefits are the deciding factor in their decision to continue to work past retirement age.

“We’ve had a lot of people actually come back after they’ve retired because they’re not ready to stop working,” Trivette said. “So we started to give them benefits if they worked as few as 16 hours per week. For a lot of people, that’s enough—to work two days a week and enjoy the benefits.”

While some employers may balk at the cost of offering these benefits, they run the risk of higher costs elsewhere: replacement and turnover expenses for filling the positions vacated by the Baby Boom generation. Skills shortages represent another potential risk. The Baby Boom generation is well-educated, and many industry leaders are particularly concerned about replacing retirement-age workers who have advanced degrees, especially those in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Skills shortages are also a concern around middle- and even some lower-skilled positions.

Unprepared organizations may also be vulnerable to age discrimination litigation. With the majority of the workforce soon expected to be covered by legislation prohibiting age discrimination, employers need to be vigilant about their practices related to mature workers. See the sourcebook’s overview of laws prohibiting age discrimination, types of claims alleging age discrimination organizations should be aware of and how organizations can take advantage of the planning recommendations without risking claims of age discrimination.

Jen Schramm is manager of the Workforce Trends program at SHRM.

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