Expert: Prepare for aging in the workplace

October 2, 2007
If you haven’t done much to figure out how the aging work force will affect your business, you aren’t very far behind. In fact you’re in good company, says Michael A.
Smyer, co-director of the Sloan Center for Flexible Work Options & Older Workers. Just 12 percent of employers have analyzed demographics that show the work force is rapidly aging, according to a national study Smyer’s academic center at Boston College recently conducted. About 26 percent of the survey’s 600 responding employers indicated they have done nothing to examine the issue, with the majority being mildly aware that at the same time the population is aging, the work force is shrinking. Big mistake, Smyer said Monday during a luncheon hosted by the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. and the CU Aging Center, a community-based mental health services and research center in Colorado Springs. A flat growth rate of under 0.5 percent is projected for the U.S. labor force during the next 60 years, which Smyer said could lead to a severe shortage of skilled workers. “The challenge is going to be a very competitive marketplace for labor,” he said. “Employers are going to want to be an employer of choice and develop options of what people are looking for in a tight labor market. You’ll want to offer what employees want.” Older workers have similar wants as younger workers — but for different reasons, Smyer said. A key desire is flexibility in work hours, he said. “Most don’t want to go from full-time employment to full-time retirement — they want to work in a different way to pursue a passion, stay intellectually healthy, have health insurance,” he said. Older workers also may need to care for an aging parent or grandchildren, which may lead employers to consider a phased retirement option instead of only full-blown retirement, Smyer said. To turn an aging work force into a competitive advantage and not a vulnerability, businesses should plan for the succession of older workers and determine how knowledge can be transferred to younger workers. “Link it to your core business strategy,” Smyer said. “Use the assets of an aging work force to accomplish your goals. The benefits are good for you and your employees.” Aging workers, those 62 and older and considered the “mature” generation, as well as the baby boomers, those from about 42 to 62 years old, bring to the workplace skills and experience, established client networks, reliability, productivity and knowledge that only comes from on-thejob learning, Smyer said. To keep a full talent pool, older workers must be retained and re-engaged in the work force, he said, particularly in professions that have a high percentage of workers above age 45. In Colorado, industries with the highest percentages of workers ages 45 to 61 are: legal occupations, 78 percent; utilities, 74 percent; publishing industries, 62 percent; and computer and electronic product manufacturing, 61 percent. “Better organizations are asking how ready they are and are moving from awareness and assessment to looking at response options and taking action,” Smyer said.
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