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6 Coping Strategies When Your Best Workers Start Retiring

A man working on a machine in a factory.

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As the master of machining the tricky part of a spoon where the handle meets the bowl, Toby Leonard has been integral to the success of Liberty Tabletop, the last remaining maker of flatware in America. But Leonard is nearly 70 years old and would like to retire, so his singular command of the "grade roll" also poses a dilemma for Sherrill Manufacturing, the company that makes Liberty Tabletop.

"This is not something you can just go down to the local vocational college and learn," says CEO Greg Owens. "It's a particular skill involving automation that is unique to our factory." So far, Owens has prevailed upon Leonard to keep coming to the plant in Sherrill, N.Y., at least two days a week. Not only does Leonard need to keep turning spoons, but the he's also still training his two successors.

Welcome to the flip side of a prosperous U.S. economy, where baby boomers are feeling comfortable retiring from their long-time employers in droves. Yet, companies simply can't afford to let some of these people go, especially at a time of general labor scarcity. Or, if they do, they face a greater need than ever to absorb the vital knowledge of processes and procedures, hack improvisation and institutional memory that retirees otherwise simply would take out the door with them.

"This is a significant problem and not talked about as much as it should be," says Megan Gerhardt, a business professor at Miami University of Ohio and author of Gentelligence, a new book about how generational differences play out at work. "We've given a lot of attention to what older workers can learn about technology from younger generations, but the other side of that coin has been lost in the conversation."

Here are some ways to make the transition easier:

1. Help them stay longer. "We treat people well and provide them with hope that things will get even better," Owens says. "We hand out 'attaboys' and bonus checks based on productivity increases, and we're always improving our work environment."

Manufacturers, for example, can make simple ergonomic improvements, such as better seating on the assembly line and more cushioning on the floors, as well as implementing pre-shift stretching routines, and turning breakrooms into "wellness" havens, suggests Michael Stephan, U.S. human-capital leader for Deloitte Consulting.

2. Mesh the generations. Gerhardt says many boomers are predisposed to want to mentor and guide rather than invest in their own personal gain or prove themselves. "They've already done that," she says. Thankfully, "What younger generations need is coaching and feedback."

To help with this, Nissan established a "digital-acceleration" office at its plant in Smyrna, Tenn., to pair what David Johnson, vice president of production engineering for Nissan North America, calls the "donkeys and pulleys" generation with the "1's and 0's" generation.

At Siemens USA, CEO Barbara Humpton faced a challenge in her energy-management division where many salespeople were reaching retirement age "all at once," she recalls. "So we created a multi-generational team" for the handoff, she says. "The newer generation felt like the [older] folks were investing their time and interest in them, and the folks who'd been around for a while loved the interest and energy from new entrants into the field."

3. Show them respect. Workplaces increasingly dominated by millennials and members of Generation Z can transmit messages to boomers that essentially amount to an invitation to leave. "OK, boomer," for instance, has become a meme for younger workers to dismiss their elders as hopelessly outdated. "That doesn't do any more good than older workers stereotyping millennials as incredibly unproductive," Gerhardt says.

4. Capture their knowledge. Specialized software is available for companies in nearly every vertical for logging, sharing and manipulating vital information for knowledge transfer, often with features such as social-media collaboration tools and artificial-intelligence engines.

Asset-Map, for example, is an online platform that helps senior financial advisers "who have high relationship and experiential currency bring in a junior adviser who has strong technological capabilities," as they work together with clients, says Adam Holt, CEO of the Philadelphia software company. Another platform, called Viewpoint, helps construction companies capture the knowledge that "the average 55-year-old" has about building a road or a bridge, says Jeremy Larsen, VP of products for the Portland, Oregon-based outfit.

5. Remember the soft skills. Still, Stephan says, "It's often a mistake for organizations to think that technology will solve everything." Older workers can help younger peers understand that not every skill can be reduced to an app. "The younger generations are great at communicating with e-mail but not so great at face-to-face," says Zachary Russi, vice president of Western Allied Mechanical, a San Francisco construction firm. "They can learn some of those soft skills from our senior people."

6. Bring them back. Finally, when your would-be retirees are ready to go, transition them to part-time work or retain them as consultants. Or just offer free lunch in the company cafeteria so they'll come back regularly—and be available as an informal resource to their former colleagues. Free coffee is a small price to pay to retain knowledge built up over decades. The older generation is "where the DNA of the company lies, our best practices, our know-how," says Nissan's Johnson. "We can't give that knowledge up."

This article is excerpted from with permission from Chief Executive. © 2020. All rights reserved.