As the American workforce grows increasingly gray, companies are finding creative ways to engage and retain older workers.
Five years ago, Phyllis Bainbridge began having trouble performing her job. At age 57, she started making small mistakes and experiencing difficulty completing routine tasks. Bainbridge, a registered nurse, worked the 12-hour night shift in the neonatal intensive-care unit at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora, Ill. As she grew older, she says, she was becoming more fatigued working nights.
"My boss came to me," says Bainbridge. "We had conversations for about two to three months. It was mutually agreed upon that I could not do my job anymore. I was overwhelmed. At that point, I had worked at Copley for over 27 years. What was I to do?"
Managing older workers may, indeed, be the latest employer challenge. Their numbers have steadily climbed over the past decade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 18 million workers over the age of 55 in 2000. That number jumped to 23.4 million in 2005, then again to 27.2 million in 2009.
Faced with aging employees whose abilities, career interests and health conditions often change, employers are developing flexible workplace programs to engage this valued segment of their workforce and, in turn, are keeping them on the job, productive and loyal.
In Bainbridge's situation, HR transferred her to a day position, delivering outpatient diabetes education.
"The bottom line is that Copley cared enough about me to work with me," says Bainbridge. "I always felt like they valued my being here because they went out of their way to find another position for me."
Staffing problems at the hospital began five years ago, driven by the nation's nursing shortage. Nursing positions were getting harder to fill. To make matters worse, older nurses were retiring because they could no longer handle the physical demands of the job.
So with the help of a $75,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, called Keeping Wisdom at Work, Rush-Copley implemented a series of changes to further engage and retain qualified nurses, says Darla Mullner, the hospital's HR director.
It replaced the carpeting on the intensive-care unit with laminate flooring, making it easier for nurses to push hospital beds. Assistive devices -- inflatable mats -- were purchased for every unit to help nurses lift or move patients from a bed to a gurney or operating table.
Approximately 10 computer workstations were added to each nursing station so nurses didn't have to walk back and forth between rooms and computers at a central nursing station to enter patient data. Each patient room was also equipped with a locked medicine cabinet to reduce the amount of walking for nurses between patient rooms and the hospital pharmacy or medication room on each floor.
More recently, in March, HR also implemented a three-day hearing-screening program. Most of the 100 people who signed up were over the age of 40. Mullner says she was "shocked" to learn that most had a hearing deficit, regardless of their occupation.
"If you're hearing better, you're going to [perform] better," she says, adding that participants received referrals to the hospital's physician practice group and a reminder that their health-insurance coverage included hearing aids and exams. The screening was so popular that it will be repeated this fall.
In the meantime, she says, the hospital will continue facilitating job transfers whenever possible.
"We can't do that with everybody because maybe they don't have the talent or interest," says Mullner, adding that 27 percent of the hospital's 1,770 employees will be 50 years or older by the end of this year. "But when the opportunity is there [to transfer older workers], we have done it. It has worked very well for us."
Despite the rising number of older workers, some companies are far from equipped to manage them, says Bill Novelli, former CEO of AARP who is now a distinguished professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business in Washington.
"We're still in a state of flux," says Novelli, who recently co-authored the book, Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order, with Peter Cappelli, a Wharton School professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
"There are companies that are really on this and understand the curve. They tend to be concentrated in industries like health, healthcare and technology, where they don't want 50-somethings to walk out their door. Other companies haven't discovered this or are just beginning to figure it out. Then there's a third set of companies that are pushing older workers out the door."
Novelli points to three reasons for the mix of mind-sets. There are still prejudices about older people, which is part of the American culture, he says, explaining that some believe they're slow workers, unable to learn or change.
Then there's training. While older workers can be retrained, he says, companies must realize they aren't all online-savvy when compared to younger employees. Lastly, he says, some employers don't understand the needs of older workers, who typically prefer flexible work schedules or healthcare benefits over fancy job titles.
One of the biggest criticisms is that older workers consume more healthcare dollars. While often true, Novelli says, the cost is marginal, typically an additional 3 percent to 5 percent. But does their loyalty, experience and overall job performance compensate for the added expense? This is what some employers are trying to figure out, he says.
In the future, he believes, this will be a moot point. Years ago, there was a big ruckus over whether a man could report to a woman. Ten or 20 years from now, he says, engaging older workers will also become a non-issue. Besides, he adds, as the consumer marketplace turns increasingly gray, more companies will hire more employees who reflect their customer base.
Meanwhile, some companies are offering flexible-workplace options that provide unique ways for older workers to continue adding value and remain productively engaged, says Bill Zinke, owner of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Human Resource Services Inc. and president of The Center for Productive Longevity in Boulder, Colo.
"Traditionally, companies have placed substantially greater emphasis on training and developing younger workers," says Zinke. "But with the increased desire for older workers to remain productively engaged for longer periods of time, companies are beginning to devote more of their training and development dollars to older workers."
Zinke, who is 83, represents many actively-employed seniors who don't plan on retiring anytime soon. Citing the BLS, he says approximately 80 percent of people over 55 want to work, but more on a part-time than full-time basis.
Most can, mainly because of the shift from labor to service jobs. Again citing the BLS, he says the number of people in service jobs soared from 22.2 million in 1950 to 92.2 million today.
Zinke believes engaging and retaining older workers produces huge societal benefits.
"If we utilize this talent pool, we will maintain our productivity gains, enable the country to compete more effectively in the global marketplace [and] reduce the cost of having them retired ... through reduced Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security costs," he says.
The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association reports that one of its greatest challenges is eliminating stereotypes about older workers among its 1,100 employees and finding creative ways to engage mature employees, says Bill Colbourne, senior vice president of HR and administration at BCBSA in Chicago.
The number of employees over the age of 55 in the organization has soared from 12 percent in 2001 to 37 percent in 2008. Still, he says, some staff stubbornly cling to myths, such as mature workers are less engaged, not as productive, less interested in their jobs and careers, and don't understand technology.
"When you have those kinds of stereotypes floating around, too often they work their way into the way you operate, your practices, like not including [older] workers in new products or initiatives, not doing career planning or involving them in training," he says. "I think when you do that, you've got a real problem [with] disengaging mature workers."
As a company that routinely hires graying employees, he says, the association built an environment that's friendly to older-workers and implements practices to engage them.
All managers, for instance, must complete a training program that addresses the changing workforce demographics, diffuses myths about mature workers and also prevents personal perceptions from steering decisions -- such as who should be trained, involved in career-development activities or assigned new tasks. He says managers are encouraged to teach older workers new skills so they become more valuable employees.
All other employees complete a different training program that dispels common myths about older workers. Likewise, when employees reach 55 years of age, BCBSA provides up to $300 in tuition reimbursement for any two courses, work-related or not.
Once they turn 62, employees also receive two extra vacation days, a third vacation day when they reach 64 and another two days at age 65.
The association also conducts focus groups to identify the needs of older workers and encourages them to attend an on-site, part-time, three-year MBA program through the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, which features 13 core units and three elective units in healthcare management. Almost 20 percent who attend are over the age of 55, Colbourne says.
Last year, the company introduced Blue Bring Back, a nationwide program in which retirees from the association's health plans can return to work -- even telecommute -- for temporary assignments, special projects or to cover for employee vacations. Roughly 1,000 people already participate, representing various types of professional, managerial and technical occupations.
"I honestly believe that if [older] people are given the opportunity to learn [and] develop their careers, their jobs become more interesting," Colbourne says, adding that results from a recent employee-engagement survey indicated that employees over the age of 50 were "significantly more engaged" than younger employees.
"I don't think they have as much of a desire to move on to the great unknown of retirement," he says. "The fact that someone is happy with their career and job delays the decision to leave us."
That's exactly what CVS Caremark is counting on, says Stephen Wing, director of workforce initiatives at the pharmacy healthcare provider with more than 220,000 workers and approximately 7,000 drugstores nationwide. Since the 1990s, the number of CVS employees over the age of 50 has jumped from 7 percent to 20 percent. More than 30 employees are over the age of 90.
For the past 18 years, Wing says, CVS has partnered with the National Council on Aging, AARP and community agencies to help train almost 5,000 people for a variety of CVS jobs. Training is funded by the company or sometimes offset by federal grants from the U.S. Department of Labor. After training, participants then receive on-the-job-training -- working alongside employees -- and are hired when openings exist.
To engage and retain older workers, the company introduced its Snowbird program in 2004. Employees who wish to vacation in another state for several months are temporarily assigned to work at a different CVS store in that state where a vacancy occurs. During their absences, part-time employees can work extra hours, then revert back to part-time when the employee returns. Wing says nearly 1,500 mature workers nationwide participate each year.
When requested, the company also reassigns older workers to positions with fewer physical demands. For example, pharmacists who typically stand on their feet all day, can work at one of the company's call centers where they answer caller questions about medicines and drug interactions. "It's a great opportunity for pharmacists who don't want to work full-time," says Wing.
However, as the economy recovers, Wing believes many older workers may consider retiring.
"We have to be prepared for that and figure out [more] ways to keep them engaged," he says, adding that there could be a mass exodus of employees from the labor force. "If companies don't continue to engage older workers as the population ages, then they won't have a business because they won't have [employees]. It's as simple as that."