Viewpoint: The Public Sector Needs to Invest in Older Workers

5 ways to maximize their contributions, build stronger generationally diverse teams, and best serve the public

By Bradley Schurman and T.J. Londagin May 3, 2019
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Viewpoint: The Public Sector Needs to Invest in Older Workers

​For years, public-sector leaders across the United States have grappled with a workforce crisis. Fewer and fewer young people are entering public service, and more and more workers are staying past traditional retirement age. The current average age for public-sector employees is 45.4, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

While this average age may not seem shocking at first blush, a 2017 analysis from Politico found stark variation among federal agencies. In some, the concentration of older workers is particularly noteworthy. Sixty-nine percent of NASA's workforce is over 45 years old. At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it's 70 percent. At the Government Publishing Office, it's 80 percent.

Public-sector leaders across this country have historically focused on transferring skills and knowledge from older employees to younger ones, anticipating that there would eventually be an exodus of older workers. This exodus never occurred. While transferring skills remains necessary, these leaders also need to embrace and nurture the skills that older workers have acquired while at the same time luring younger workers into public careers and equipping them with older workers' knowledge immediately.

AARP explored intergenerational teams in its 2016 report Disrupt Aging in the Workforce. Author Lori Trawinski explained that "by removing the lens of age as a way to view existing or potential employees, we shift the focus to their abilities, skills, and knowledge." Further, she shared, "We must also recognize that differences exist in the experiences, expectations, styles, and perspectives of people from different generations. While differences can sometimes be a source of conflict, these same differences can become a source of strength and innovation when addressed and managed well."

Here are five ways to capitalize on the contributions of older, experienced workers while building a generationally diverse workforce:

1.     Embed knowledge transfer into your culture. The traditional last-minute approach to passing knowledge from retiring workers to younger ones isn't inherently wrong. It's just shortsighted and doesn't produce optimal outcomes.

Knowledge transfer needs to be an ongoing practice that begins on every worker's first day on the job and continues until his or her last day. Moreover, managers should focus on continual skills transfer back and forth between experienced and less-experienced employees. Formal mentoring programs are a natural solution to this challenge. However, organizations should also invest in "reverse mentoring," which empowers younger workers to share their knowledge with more-experienced employees and managers. 

2.     Educate, educate, educate. Public-sector employees stay in their jobs nearly twice as long as private-sector ones. According to BLS data from January 2018, public-sector workers had a median tenure of 6.8 years, considerably higher than the median of 3.8 years for private-sector employees. Further, older workers tend to stay around longer than their younger counterparts. This means public-sector employees, especially older ones, have the potential to be great assets, but they may also need continuing education. It's imperative that public-sector employees have the tools they need to succeed both early on and later in their careers.

Brian Elms, a public-sector innovation expert and co-author of the best-selling book Peak Performance (Rodale Inc., 2017) explains: "Employees, just like infrastructure assets, require ongoing care and investments. When we re-engage our strongest assets in our organizations, our employees, we spark creativity and innovation throughout our workforce." 

3.     Communicate in ways that work. Time after time, workforce experts have identified rifts in the way people from different generations speak with one another. Remember the Baby Boomers' clarion call not to trust anyone over 30? Today, Millennials and members of Generation Z don't trust anyone who doesn't use technology to communicate.

Organizations should invest in technology that facilitates and encourages greater communication and collaboration between generations. However, the benefits of communications technology can only be realized if staff share in the vision and are trained to use the technology effectively.

4.     Empower employees. Successful private- and public-sector employers have learned this lesson. Let employees tell you how they want to work, learn and serve. Many employee engagement and benefits strategies are built with a younger workforce in mind and focus on "how do we keep you for the next five to 10 years?" without much thought given to "how do we make the most out of your final five to 10 years?" Create that balance by asking employees how best to work with their needs and aspirations. Build an engagement and benefits structure that embraces generational wants and needs.
 

5.     End ageism. Ageism is perhaps the most pervasive and most permitted bias allowed in the workplace, regardless of legal prohibitions against the practice. Studies have shown that it negatively impacts organizational effectiveness. Sensitivity to age bias for workers young and old helps employers make the workforce more welcoming and stronger across generations.

According to Mary Barnes, director of workforce transformation at the General Services Administration, "Ageism can be either prejudging someone based on their age or treating them with kid gloves and lowering your expectations of them because of their age. If you want to address ageism in the workplace, you need to practice basic good management. Set clear expectations for success, leverage everyone's individual strengths, and treat everyone on the team equitably. The employee-supervisor contract means employees should all feel heard, understood and respected. Managers must understand this is true of any employee no matter their age or years of service. You have to consider what it is going to take to make that individual employee, with individual strengths, successful."

It's foolish for organizations to ignore the opportunities presented by older workers who stay longer in their public-sector careers. Investing in older workers will improve their contributions as well as the overall ability of public-sector organizations to serve the public.

Bradley Schurman is managing partner and a co-founder of EconomyFour, a Washington, D.C.-based global advisory group. T.J. Londagin is CEO and co-founder of Totem, a Washington, D.C.-based minority-owned management consulting firm. 

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