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Follow the Flock

Companies want to keep experienced workers, so they are finding ways to accommodate the migratory habits of "snowbirds."

Tuesday, August 1, 2006
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It's natural for employers to focus on strategies for hiring and retaining young millennials or confident Gen-Xers. But an increasing number of companies are also focusing on people like Bill Duclos.

At 79, well past the traditional age of retirement, he'd like to keep working at a job that he loves and that pays well -- he's been a pharmacist for more than half a century. Thanks to modern medicine, he's healthy enough to do just that.

But there's one, well, wrinkle to retaining someone like Duclos: He's a snowbird, part of that annual tide of retirees who head south during the winter, then return to the northern climes when springtime arrives. In some cases, they have two homes; in other cases, they stay with their children during one or both legs of the circuit.

Duclos is a good example: He has a home he loves in Lakeville, Mass. His five kids, nine grandkids and two great-grandchildren live nearby, and he sees them regularly. But ever since 1991, he's been heading south to his second home in Naples, Fla., in the second week of October. In the second week of May, he heads back north.

In the past, Duclos might have had trouble negotiating with his employer the terms of his continuing work -- not just because his age is well past the long-held retirement tradition, but because his annual schedule is also far from traditional. That was before the first baby boomers began retiring, however, with fewer numbers in the Gen X pool to take their places. Studies warn of a shortage of 10 million workers in the United States by 2010. In this new arena, "golden years" workers, with their depth of experience and strong work ethic, have become more attractive to employers -- enough so they're now willing to accommodate their migratory habits.

Duclos works for the mammoth Woonsocket, R.I.-based CVS Corp. which operates the CVS/pharmacy retail chain with more than 5,400 stores and more than 150,000 employees in 37 states and the District of Columbia. To retain Duclos and his expertise, CVS/pharmacy allows him to work at its Carver, Mass., store from May to October, then shift to its Bonita Springs, Fla., store from October to May.

A decade ago, only 1 percent of CVS/pharmacy employees were over 50; now, that figure is about 18 percent. Officials say the increase took concerted recruiting efforts, partnerships with both governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and a change in corporate culture.

One such alliance is with the AARP and its Featured Employers program. CVS/pharmacy recently joined about two dozen other large companies that have received AARP recognition for their efforts to hire and retain seniors.

"Mature workers are a strategic asset to our workforce," said Michael Ferdinandi, senior vice president of human resources at CVS/pharmacy, when the alliance was announced. "CVS/pharmacy has the advantage of a workforce where many associates are completing their 40th, 50th and even 60th year of service. Others have begun a second career ... and offer valuable professional experience and a strong, focused work ethic. Our mature workers understand the needs of our pharmacy customers and provide great service. They also act as mentors to many of our younger CVS/pharmacy colleagues."

Other companies that are part of the AARP program include Cingular Wireless, Comcast Cable Communications, New York Life Insurance Co., Quest Diagnostics, SunTrust Banks, Verizon, Adecco; MetLife, Pitney Bowes, Universal Health Services and Walgreens.

While not all of those companies allow "snowbird" transfers, Deborah Russell, director of workforce issues at AARP, says a number of large companies, especially retailers, are catching on to the value of retaining older workers via semi-annual transfers. Home improvement mega-retailer Home Depot has such a program, she says, as does the book retailer Borders. One benefit, she says, is that younger workers are discovering older workers can pull their weight, and more.

"Employer perceptions are being dispelled as they work with this demographic, and they're finding it works really well for them," she says. "As opposed to losing a good worker, now two different locations can benefit from that worker's experience."

Russell says getting such a program started at a national employer "starts with a commitment from the top to give these workers equal access to job opportunities. Then it trickles down to that front-line manager. That's key to changing the mistaken perceptions that younger workers may have about older workers." She suggests that companies include age issues in diversity training.

In Their 90s

There is no official retirement age at CVS: The company has about 1,800 employees in their 80s and four staffers in their 90s.

"We expect we'll soon have employees over 100," says Stephen M. Wing, who admits his title at CVS -- director of government programs -- doesn't fully describe all the HR functions he oversees. Wing says companies looking to hire seniors aren't just addressing the coming shortage of workers.

All employees who retire, he says, "take with them skills, experience, institutional knowledge and relationships -- all of which take time and money to replace." As America ages, he adds, companies everywhere are striving to have their employee population mirror that customer base -- which makes competitive sense as well. "Our research suggests that customers looking for assistance will go to someone older, even before someone their own age. Older employees can definitely be a competitive advantage."

Wing says there are really no unique challenges to employing older workers. Instead the challenge is in teaching younger workers "to shed the stereotype that mature workers lack the mental and physical capacities to do their job."

And there is another hurdle: the impression many older people have that they won't even be considered if they apply for a job, or won't be treated well if they are hired. "Companies that correct these misconceptions have a better chance of tapping into the older workforce. For example, companies may want to highlight the productivity and effectiveness of older workers in company newsletters, or stress the welcoming environment for older workers on the company Web site."

Another way to attract them is to provide the flexibility that seniors need -- hence the accommodation of snowbirds.

"We had a shift supervisor, a lady in her 60s, in Cleveland, who announced she was leaving," Wing says. "She was very experienced, a great worker and [someone] we hated to lose. When the store manager asked why she was quitting, she said she was moving to Florida for the winter. The store manager's response was: 'You know, we have stores in Florida. Where are you moving?' We just transferred her for the period she's down there." Now, though Wing says her two managers have friendly arguments about when she's arriving and when she's leaving -- in reality it's largely up to the employee herself. The important thing is "we were able to retain somebody who knows what she's doing."

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It's also working well at the Tucson, Ariz.-based Carondelet Health Network, where Leslie Minjarez is coordinator of nurse staffing and nursing community outreach. The system runs three full-size hospitals and several other smaller facilities and has about 3,000 employees.

Because of the significant nursing shortage, Carondelet is forced to hire what are called "travel nurses," agency-provided contract workers who work only a few months at a time.

Shared Mission

"Whenever we can, we try to compete with the travel-nurse company," Minjarez says. "We prefer to have nurses who are actually employees of the hospital, who are committed to our call to action, our mission vision and our values." One way to do that, she says, is by hiring "snowbird" nurses who arrive in the winter months and then move back to northern hospitals during the warmer part of the year.

While Carondelet itself is located only in the Tucson area, it is part of the St. Louis-based Ascension Health System, the largest nonprofit health system in the United States. That alliance gives new options to experienced nurses who might otherwise be choosing retirement. "Once their children are out of the house, some of them like to travel and follow the nice weather, as well as work in a quality organization."

But don't call it a transfer.

"We call it 'seasonal leave.' It's considered a leave, rather than a transfer," she says. "They can work up to nine months, then we put them on a leave of absence, and they pick up again when they come back."

Minjarez adds that it's not only seniors who are taking advantage of the mobility the program gives them. "We have some young nurses who like to go up north for a few months and vacation or visit family. Both young and old nurses do it."

The payoff for Carondelet is the presence of professionals with decades of knowledge and experience. "Experienced nurses are very valuable to any health organization, and they can be great mentors for your younger nurses." Minjarez calls the program "a huge win for us."

Some companies also cater to snowbirds by hiring them only during the months they are in the area. Bradenton, Fla.-based retailer Bealls, which operates 82 department stores in Florida, is one operation that takes advantage of the annual snowbird arrival, according to Jim Simpson, vice president of stores and real estate.

"It's a natural phenomenon," he says. "Sales in our stores increase over the winter months when the snowbirds are here, and we need additional sales help." But the migrating flocks not only bring more customers, Simpson says; they also bring experienced retail workers looking to supplement their incomes and stay active--and get that employee discount.

"It's nice to have an experienced, flexible workforce on call," he says, noting that, at the height of the season, older part-time workers may comprise 15 percent of his total workforce. "Many of them are only interested in about 20 hours a week, but that allows us to fill in gaps where we need extra help."

CVS/pharmacy's Wing expects more companies will see the benefits of this kind of flexibility soon.

"Surprisingly, many companies are still operating on the mistaken assumption that the future holds a growing pool of talented and loyal young workers -- or that mature workers lack the mental and physical capacities to do their job. However, the companies that take steps now to attract mature workers will be the ones gaining the competitive edge in the future."

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