Mature Workers: 'Solid Investment'

December 4, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Rapids Community College's Older Learner Center recently embarked on a project it hopes will pave the way for greater employment assistance and job training for residents 55 and older. The effort includes working with area employers to educate them on the benefits of retaining, hiring and retraining older workers. The overall goal is to improve the local system and make it more user friendly for older workers.

GRCC's Project Mature Worker is supported by a grant of just under $50,000 from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation "Creating Community for Lifetime" initiative. The foundation intends to develop a long-term plan to address the challenges and opportunities of an aging community. Its vision is to make Kent County an elderly-friendly community.

Project Manager Mike Faber, associate director of the Older Learner Center, said he hopes to have certain elements of the project sustainable by the time it wraps in December 2007.

The people who most frequently lose their jobs, are displaced and are in need employment assistance or job training are people 55 and older, Faber said.

"Employers need to look at this population as a ready source of available workers who have a tremendous amount to offer the work force," he said.

Older Learner Center staff is working behind the scenes with people in the employment assistance and job training fields to educate them about the specific needs of the older worker and encourage them to more specifically and deliberately target that population for their services. The center invited a variety of employment assistance and job training providers to its first Project Mature Worker open house in late October and plans to hold several more next year.

"A lot of what drove us toward looking at this project in the first place was the history GRCC had in doing similar projects successfully in the 1980s and 1990s, when there were federal funds available from the Administration on Aging for mature worker projects," Faber said. "A lot of those programs don't exist anymore, and yet we see increased need.

"We've been looking for a long time for an avenue to do something similar, but there just haven't been funding opportunities. So when we saw what was being offered through the foundation's Community for Lifetime initiative, we jumped on it, because part of what they were looking at was employment."

Retired GRCC Professor Robert Riekse was actively involved in those earlier GRCC projects, which were part of the federally funded and locally administered Job Training Partnership Act program. The program included a 3 percent set-aside program for the training of older workers. The main champion of that 3 percent set-aside nationally was former Congressman Paul B. Henry of Grand Rapids, Riekse recalled. The set-aside was eliminated with a new act in 1997 that established national, regional and local work-force development boards charged with providing employment assistance and job training. But the new boards didn't have a focus on older workers, and Riekse has seen continued deterioration of the job market for older workers since then.

"In fact, as you look at all the plant closings and downsizings that have occurred across America over the years since the work-force development boards were instituted, only 5.6 percent of all the people they ever dealt with are over the age of 55," Riekse pointed out.

Riekse's role in Project Mature Worker has been to put together the employer education component. The plan is to recruit 30 area employers for "extensive exposure to the real cost benefits of hiring older workers," he said. His team is producing a video based on extensive research by the federal government, foundations, universities and other sources to highlight those benefits. The video can be presented to company management and human resources people in person or by way of educational TV.

"We know that in western Michigan we have been a model of employing older workers," Riekse noted. "We're not talking about lower-level service workers; we're talking about people with good jobs and skills they can develop further in the future. There are 10,000 people turning 60 every day, and the vast majority of them want to work but need flexibility."

Research shows, for instance, that turnover is much lower for older workers, and they stay on the job longer than younger workers. Yet people 55 and over have often been the target of downsizing, typically because they cost more to employ due to their experience and longevity. That's tragic, Riekse said, because extensive research shows there can be a very major business case made for employing older workers.

For example, a study published in December 2005 by Towers Perrin for the American Association of Retired Persons provides documentation to the business community that attracting and retaining mature, experienced people will become increasingly critical to maintaining a competitive advantage in the new labor market being shaped by changing work-force demographics. The study includes analyses of the costs of compensation, retirement benefits, paid time off and health care, and concludes that 50-plus workers represent "a solid and sound investment proposition" for employers.

The study found that:

  • Many companies face potential critical losses of experienced talent in key roles ranging from leadership to sales to certain technical and professional disciplines and many skilled trades.

  • Some companies may be able to escape the talent crunch entirely if today's 50-plus workers stay in the work force longer than did previous generations.

  • Many U.S. workers intend to continue working past traditional retirement age.

  • A recent Society for Human Resource Management survey showed that 58 percent of HR managers are seeing many new workers who lack overall professionalism, written communication skills, analytical skills or business knowledge.

  • Older workers are more motivated to exceed expectations on the job than their younger counterparts.

  • The benefits of a stable work force and avoiding turnover cost can exceed the incremental compensation and benefit cost for a 50-plus worker.

  • Organizations will need to offer the right mix of rewards to retain, attract and engage workers over 50.

  • Few companies thus far have fully positioned themselves for the coming work-force demographic shifts.

Faber said if the existing system can be made more responsive to older workers, then perhaps it would decrease age discrimination in employment and make it easier for people to maintain or find employment in the future.   

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