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Older workforce finds firms more accommodating

  • NEW YORK TIMES
    Cheryl Sullivan, left, and Corliss Fanjoy work at the Erda production facility in Dexter, Maine. Because most of Erda’s employees are age 60 or older, the company has implemented a flexible scheduling system and invested in more ergonomic machines to accommodate an aging workforce.
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Corliss Fanjoy is turning 65 this year, but she is not ready for retirement. And at a small handbag maker in Maine, where Fanjoy spends her working hours cutting intricate patterns in leather, she is not alone.

Most of her co-workers are over 55. One of them is her boss, Susan Nordman, 60, who bought the then- struggling company, Erda, based in Dexter, in 2013. She inherited a mostly older workforce; Nordman was determined to keep those workers on the job.

"Preserving critical knowledge is vital to the longevity of any business," she said. "The skills that my employees possess require hands-on learning. With time and training, new workers can learn these skills, but only if someone is there to teach them.

"Yes, you have to accommodate older workers’ needs," Nordman added, "but they’re an asset and you have to take care of an asset."

One way that Nordman has been able to retain her older workers is by offering more flexible work arrangements.

"At Erda everyone has a key to the office so workers can work the hours that fit their needs," she said. "Some elect to come as early as 5:30, and others work nine-hour days and take a half-day on Friday. I’ve always felt the more autonomy that you give someone, the better job they’re going to do."

The extra effort has paid off, according to Nordman. This year the company, which sells to about 700 stores, will produce nearly 16,000 bags, up from 9,000 in 2013. Erda, she said, is now turning a profit.

As more workers like Fanjoy are saying no to a traditional retirement, more employers are informally introducing flexibility into their schedules or allowing employees to step slowly out of the workforce with a phased retirement arrangement. It can be a win-win for both. But there are plenty of challenges to overcome.

From 1985 to 2014 the rate of participation in the labor force for people 65 to 69 increased to almost 32 percent from about 18 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"That’s a whopping increase," said Sara E. Rix, a former senior adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute. "Even at the oldest ages — 75 and above — people are more likely to be in the labor force today than they were 20 or 30 years ago."

Delayed retirement is a consideration for an array of reasons, but for many people, money is the fundamental factor. "Financial necessity dictates the need to work for most of my older workers," Nordman said.

In June the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing to investigate "Work in Retirement: Career Reinventions and the New Retirement Workscape." Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine and chairwoman of the committee, has been a leading voice advocating the value of older workers.

"The face of our nation’s workforce is changing," Collins said. "I think we’re facing a tsunami of retirees who will find that they are going to outlive their savings, that they have not prepared for their retirement."

Nordman, Rix and James C. Godwin Jr., vice president of human resources at the nonprofit Bon Secours Virginia Health System, testified at the hearing. (This reporter also spoke at the hearing, after being invited to testify on the challenges Americans who work into their 60s and 70s might face and the value that older workers can add to the workplace.)

Although having flexible work schedules and phased-in retirement programs is popular with workers, employers have been slower to adopt them in a formal way.

A majority of employers with 50 or more employees do offer flexible work options to some of their workers. But few do for all.

With labor still relatively plentiful, most employers don’t feel compelled to do so. "They simply don’t want another benefit that may be subject to laws and regulations, as a formal program probably would," Rix said. "Employers want to keep certain workers, but they don’t want to offer a new benefit to everybody, and in fact, they probably couldn’t. It can be expensive from both an administrative and benefits perspective."

Kerry Hannon, New York Times

 

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