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Heroic pilot helps make case for the value of experience

Industries that lay off their older workers or hustle them into early retirement to clear the ranks for younger and cheaper employees often end up regretting the loss.

January 22, 2009|MICHAEL HILTZIK

The battle of youth versus age is one of the defining economic struggles of our era. Therefore, speaking as someone who hasn't been referred to as "the Kid" for a decade or three, I would like to salute Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, 57, for holding up my team in the war of the generations.

Capt. Sullenberger is the pilot who ditched his crippled airliner in New York's Hudson River a week ago, saving every soul on board. When his achievement was praised by experts as the product of skill and experience, I started thinking about what might have happened if he had been forced into early retirement by his constantly downsizing employer, US Airways.

Would a more junior pilot have shown the same instinctual response to the crisis in midair? Made the same split-second calculation that the only way to avoid harming people on the ground was to land in the river? Communicated the same coolness under pressure to passengers via the intercom?

There's no early-retirement program in place at US Airways, where layoffs are done strictly by seniority. (Pilots there are still body-checking one another for seniority rankings in the wake of the company's messy 2005 merger with America West Airlines.) But workers in dozens of other industries, especially in the manufacturing sector, have been getting pushed into early retirement or laid off to clear the ranks for younger -- that is, cheaper -- employees.

The auto industry, for example, is moving toward a two-tier compensation system in which new hires will get lower pay and benefits than the existing workforce. (This change isn't scheduled to happen until 2010, but last month numerous congressmen, mostly from anti-union states, hinted to the automakers' chief executives that maybe it should happen sooner.)

What disappears in this trend is that quality often termed "institutional memory." It used to be highly valued. Statistics compiled by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College show that at least until 2004, older workers had a lower risk of "displacement" -- that is, the elimination of their jobs -- than younger cohorts. The key factor, according to a study by Alicia Munnell, the center's director, was that older workers had longer job tenures and therefore their employers had larger investments in their training and knowledge.

That's changed in recent years. The center has found that older workers' edge in job security has now disappeared. It cited several reasons, including a surge in layoffs in manufacturing, where the differential tends to be slim, and a trend toward job-hopping that has reduced tenure for many older employees.

But there are also signs that employers simply don't attach as much economic value to experience as they used to. Companies instituting mass early-retirement programs -- the mass media, for example -- sometimes argue that technology has narrowed the gap in ability between young and old that was formerly provided by experience, or that to survive in today's fast-paced world they need to make room for younger, fresher viewpoints in the workforce.

Yet does anyone doubt that more often than not the guiding rationale is money? Younger workers cost less not only because of their pay, but because they make fewer health insurance claims for expensive conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and they haven't built up a big pension liability for the employer. (In fact, they're lucky if they have a traditional pension.)

The ultimate example of the experience-be-damned layoff is that of Circuit City, which on a single day in April 2007 dismissed 3,400 workers whom it judged to be overpaid and easily replaceable by younger and cheaper employees.

I'm not sure what this policy achieved, other than raising the percentage of sales staff who couldn't tell you the difference between a megabyte and a mallomar. I do know that it was concocted by corporate bosses who then paid themselves "retention" bonuses of up to $1 million each, on the grounds that the company could scarcely survive another day without their wisdom and, er, experience.

How did that work out? Last week Circuit City launched a going-out-of-business sale.

It's proper to recognize that "experience" isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Sometimes it's merely a smoke screen for the hidebound, burned out or lazy.

Nor is it a substitute for judgment and intelligence. Just the other day we inaugurated a president who repelled attacks on his supposed "inexperience" by displaying intellectual depth and a singular maturity of purpose. The defeated ticket, by contrast, was led by a superannuated politician who seemed to have forgotten all the lessons of a lengthy public career and a running mate whose "administrative experience" cloaked a worldview so shallow it would drown in a wading pool.

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