Companies are discovering appreciation for older workers - The Buffalo News
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Companies are discovering appreciation for older workers

At a time when digital skills are prized and businesses place a premium on youth, some employers subtly seek to push out older workers, denying them raises once awarded routinely, reducing their responsibilities or giving evaluations that are cold and complain of waning productivity.

Then there are the employers who do the opposite. They go the extra mile to assure experienced employees that they are valued and that management is eager for them to stay. Some employers promote innovative programs to show that they appreciate their older employees and don’t want to lose their experience, their rapport with customers or their ability to mentor younger workers.

In one unusual effort to encourage older workers to stay, CVS Caremark offers a “snowbird” program, in which several hundred pharmacists and other employees from northern states are transferred each winter to pharmacies in Florida and other warmer states. Suzanne Fontaine, 66, a certified pharmacy technician at a CVS in Richmond, R. I., said she would have retired years ago if the company had not let her work the winter months at a CVS in Naples, Fla., where she and her husband have a second home.

“It’s a godsend for me,” Fontaine said. “It’s great for the company and for individuals like me who want to stay warm in the winter.”

Fontaine helps her CVS in Naples keep up with the surge in business it experiences during the colder months, and she helps train and mentor newer employees. She works three days a week, often on days when her husband, a retired tool-and-die maker, goes golfing. “We live in a golf community down here. I love it, but I need to do something else,” she said. “I like the job. I like the customers, and it’s an opportunity to earn some money to help pay for our two homes.”

CVS, which does not pay for the snowbirds’ lodging or flights, said the program helped employees and customers. “A good number of our pharmacy customers are going to be mature customers, and as part of our focus on diversity, we want a work force that reflects our customer base,” said David Casey, CVS’ vice president for workforce strategies. “So it was a no-brainer for us to have a lot of mature workers as part of our overall workforce.”

In another program aimed at retaining older workers, Michelin, the tire maker, lets experienced, white-collar workers stretch out their careers by transitioning them from often-stressful 50- and 60-hour-a-week jobs to less demanding part-time jobs. And the U.S. National Institutes of Health, a federal agency, offers emergency care for employees’ parents, a step beyond the emergency child care offered by many employers. The program helps retain scientists and other workers who may be tempted to quit to care for parents with recurring health crises.

Other employers focus on keeping employees healthy and well trained throughout their careers, with retaining experienced workers as an important goal. Pitney Bowes, a producer of mailing equipment and software, has programs to help workers continually upgrade their skills and offers a six-hour course, “How to Save Your Back.” Fidelity Investments has established health and wellness centers at its operations around the country, offering programs on losing weight, reducing stress and smoking cessation, among others.

“Today’s older workers are healthier and a lot more technologically savvy than older workers of previous generations,” said Deborah Banda, AARP’s acting vice president for financial security. “They bring a lot to the workplace; many employers are seeing that. They know that recruiting and retaining older workers is good for their business. If they weren’t good for their business, these employers wouldn’t be doing this.”

“We hear from many employers,” Banda continued, “that older workers are very dependable, they have a commitment to their job, they bring some wisdom to the job. All those traits are very valuable to employers.”

These efforts to retain older workers coincide with two important trends. First, the nation’s over-65 population is growing, meaning, among other things, that many companies will, like CVS, want mature workers to serve their customers. Second, more Americans are working later in life, either by necessity, because they cannot afford to retire, or by choice, because many stay healthier longer and like their jobs.

A Gallup poll taken last month found that the average retirement age has jumped in just a few years – to 62, a surprisingly rapid increase from 59 in 2010 – a trend spurred by the recent recession, when retirement savings suffered losses.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 32.2 percent of Americans age 65 to 69 are in the labor force, meaning they are working or looking for work, up from 21.3 percent two decades ago. The percentage of older workers in the labor force has climbed, even as the percentage of younger workers has fallen.

Some experts on aging say the baby-boom generation has changed the definition of retirement. “There’s a joke going around,” said Banda of AARP, “that the new word for retirement is ‘work.’ People are living longer and healthier lives; they want to stay active and engaged. For a lot of boomers, their definition of retirement is cutting down to part time or doing something on a project basis.”

“We are seeing more employers start to recognize the value of older workers and institute programs that value them,” Banda said. “But, frankly, we’re still not seeing enough of these employers step up to the plate.”

Many employers are uncomfortable in saying they have special programs aimed at older workers. They worry that might put off younger workers and customers. Instead, many employers say they have universal strategies that aim to please and retain younger and older workers alike. They talk of “intergenerational strategies.”

That is certainly Michelin’s approach. “Rather than say we do specific things for mature workers, we hire people for a career at Michelin, more than for a job,” said David Stafford, chief human resource officer for Michelin North America.

“I would say we have a lot of things that are applicable for all generations,” he continued. “We have a very flexible work policy that can be used for new mothers and new fathers, but also for people to take care of a sick parent.”

Michelin also has a “pre-retirement” program that allows workers age 55 and over to scale back to part time. “These people have a lot of experience, but they don’t want to work 40, 50, 60, 70 hours a week,” he said. “So we offer them flexible work opportunities. At the same time, we have strong mentoring programs. We work really hard, so a person is able to pass their knowledge on to a new one. We’re a multigenerational company.”

Over the years, few employers have won kudos as much as the National Institutes of Health for how they treat older workers. The government agency, buffered from market pressures, has an incentive to retain scientists and researchers because they often produce valuable research into their 60s and 70s.

Phil Lenowitz, who recently stepped down as NIH’s deputy director of human resources, but remains a senior adviser there, says with pride that 48 percent of NIH’s almost 20,000 employees are over the age of 50. Programs that help retain workers include flexible scheduling, telecommuting, yoga and Zumba classes, as well as a low-impact fitness program, geared to workers over 50 – not to mention the NIH orchestra, drawing on the musical talents of its staff around Bethesda, Md.

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