Use Your Older Workers!

Aug 09, 2004

While there is no doubt a downside to employing too many seasoned veterans in terms of their vacation accrual rates and basic hourly labor cost, I do not understand why some A/E and environmental firms seem hell-bent on a course to push them all out. What am I talking about? I am referring to policies that force firm owners to sell down their stock at a certain age, or worse, policies that require these people to retire from the firm altogether at a particular age (is this even legal?). The fact is, there is still a huge talent shortage facing the A/E and environmental business. It makes no business sense to run off experienced workers when most firms are struggling trying to find the qualified staff who can do work that clients will pay for. We cannot afford to run off anyone who is capable of doing a good job on tasks that clients will pay us to perform. It’s interesting to note that in Japan, older workers over age 65 are employed at twice the rate they are in this country. Cleaning out all of your older workers is bad for morale, too. I recently heard from an older fellow with whom I used to work closely— he was about 70 and worked for a large A/E firm— who was being let go in a restructuring after more than 25 years with the company. Even though they offered him a retirement party, he didn’t like the way he was being treated. He refused it on the grounds that he “wasn’t retiring,” and was instead being fired. Many others in the company saw how he was treated, and it was without a doubt perceived as an injustice. That hurt morale. People saw what happened and said, “This is not a good place to work, not a good place to build a career.” I have found that older people are more reliable and miss less work than many younger folks. One study showed that workers between 50 and 65 miss less work than their counterparts who are between 33 and 44 years old. This doesn’t surprise me. Older workers have a great work ethic. They like what they do and are more satisfied from it than younger workers. One can only speculate on why that’s the case, but my bet is that they are much more realistic in their expectations for what the job will be all about and, hence, less likely to be disappointed. Another benefit of older workers is that they are more stable. They change jobs less than their younger counterparts. As we all know, turnover is costly to A/E and environmental firms. Today’s experienced workers are more interested than ever in staying in the workforce. Older workers are not just putting in their time waiting for retirement. One poll found that 70% of Baby Boomers expect to work at least part-time “after retirement,” while another reported that 95% of current workers wish to continue working in some capacity after retirement! We cannot afford to be constantly training and re-training our workers. And while I am on the subject of training, there’s a common misconception that older workers are hard to train, particularly when it comes to computers and technology that is commonly used in today’s workplace. This, too, may be unfounded, as folks over 50 have been getting onto the Internet at a faster rate than any other age group. My mom and my wife’s grandmother are nearly 84, and they are both avid computer users. My last point concerns flexibility in scheduling. Many of those over 65 who had careers in A/E firms are still interested in working, even if not full-time. Some of these people may be ideal for peak shaving during periods of high demand, and yet they’ll be glad to do something else when you don’t need them. It seems to me that when you add it up there really are some good reasons to reconsider some of the thinking that results in so many situations of older workers getting replaced (or should I say “displaced?”) by younger people. Maybe it’s time you sat down with your HR director and some of your key hiring managers and took a look at how your firm is faring in this area. Originally published 8/09/2004

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