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At some companies, older skilled workers are golden

September 03, 2007|Jonathan Peterson | Times Staff Writer

Every time John Remore steps up to his workstation to form a piece of sheet metal, he brings an intangible asset to the job: 42 years of experience, dating to lessons from his father.

Remore, 60, doesn't brag, but that won't stop his boss. "He's invaluable. He is priceless," said Kellie Johnson, president of Torrance-based Ace Clearwater Enterprises, which makes parts for big aerospace companies.

She worries that when Remore and others of his generation retire, she will find it almost impossible to replace their skills. The average age of her workforce is 48.

"We're in the fight of our lives for skilled talent," said Johnson, whose grandfather launched the business in the 1940s welding bicycles, coffeepots and tools. "Looking forward, that will be the No. 1 issue that affects our ability to compete in the global marketplace, without a doubt."

In a society that exalts youth, older workers may sometimes feel like outcasts of the economy -- prodded into early retirement by corporate buyouts, overlooked for training and promotions, typecast by younger managers as past their prime.

Indeed, one 2005 study found that job applicants under age 50 were 42% more likely to be called for interviews than those over 50.

Yet there may be early glimmers of change. The oldest baby boomers are entering their 60s, raising the prospect of a vast wave of retirements. The post-World War II baby boom, moreover, was followed by a smaller "baby bust" generation.

As a result, some employers are worried that they will lose too many people -- and are pioneering policies to make the workplace more friendly to older employees.

"I think we're beginning to see a much broader range of options and opportunities for mature workers," said Diane Piktialis, a specialist in older-worker issues with the Conference Board, a business research organization in New York. "This is an area where there's just enormous room for creativity in terms of how companies can adapt."

Concerns are particularly acute in the areas of manufacturing, healthcare and government.

In the 3-million-member federal workforce, for example, 6 out of 10 employees could retire over the next decade, prompting a recent congressional proposal to lure retirees back to work with new financial incentives.

In other cases, certain companies are showing a willingness to make work schedules more flexible, an approach much desired by older employees.

At CVS pharmacies, more than 1,000 employees take part in a "snowbird" program that allows them to migrate between stores in different parts of the country as the seasons change.

Pharmacist Bill Duclos, 80, shifts his part-time job in Massachusetts every October to a CVS store in Florida. The arrangement lets him spend part of the year in the Northeast near his children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild, and part of the year enjoying golf, shuffleboard and card games in Florida.

It also happens that his seasonal pattern tracks business realities, because the Florida stores are much busier in the winter, when snowbirds such as Duclos show up.

"It works out for people like me -- and it works out for CVS, I guess," he said. "We're very happy with the way things are going."

Managers of the Rhode Island-based chain of drugstores say there's another benefit: The older workers sometimes are friendlier to customers and have a better work ethic than their younger counterparts.

"It gives us a competitive advantage," said Steve Wing, director of government affairs for CVS, which began the snowbird effort as part of a broader initiative to hang on to older employees.

"If we don't continue to recruit and train and retain older people, we won't have a business. We rely on them. We need them."

The need to be fully staffed isn't the only reason employers are seeking to retain older workers. Some retail executives believe these employees are more tuned in to the needs of aging customers.

In the book business, for example, more than half of consumers are older than 45, a finding that prompted Borders Group Inc. to intensify efforts to employ middle-age workers. Today, 16% of its 32,000 employees are over 50 -- up from 6% several years ago.

"It really makes sense -- from an employment perspective -- for us to target individuals who are over 50, because so much of our consumer population is over 50," said Suzann Trevisan, director of organizational development for Borders Group in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Although such views are not in sync with much of popular culture, they may become more common as the population gets older.

About one-third of employers have adopted strategies to a moderate or great extent designed to help older workers hang on beyond the traditional retirement age, according to a survey of 578 employers by researchers at Boston College.

And older workers may increasingly be a fact of business life. From now to 2014, the population of workers 55 and older will increase at four times the rate of overall labor force growth.

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