How to keep older employees engaged

With older employees staying longer in the workforce, how can employers create a positive and engaging environment for them?

Over the last two decades, the Canadian workforce has been slowly turning upside down. Companies that are still focused on easing out their 50-plus employees in favour of “younger blood” are in for a big surprise.

For generations, the age demographics of most organizations were shaped like cones: younger workers in junior positions at the bottom; more seasoned employees, mostly in their late 30s and 40s, in the middle; and then, at the very smallest spot at the top, employees over age 50. as these 50-plus employees retired, their replacements came from a large pool of talent behind them.

Not anymore. the enormous baby boomer generation (typically born between 1946 and 1964) continues to dominate the North American workforce and, despite the large numbers starting to retire, still makes up about one-third of the working population and most of the senior leadership positions, according to statistics Canada. That wouldn’t be a problem if there were enough experienced employees available to replace them. Unfortunately, there isn’t: the generation after the boomers was tiny generation X (typically born between 1965 and 1979). As a result, over the next two decades, organizations in every sector will experience an almost inconceivable loss of skills, experience and industry knowledge as the largest generation in history walks out the door.

Read: Should you offer retiree benefits to your workforce?

Developing a strategy for an older workforce and managing all of your talent—whether employees are at the beginning, middle or end of their careers— will mitigate the risks that all organizations are facing. With the repeal of mandatory retirement, employees are staying around longer and employers are unable to plan for their replacement, which poses new challenges. But employers can take steps throughout the employment cycle to address business needs and ensure that they’re tapping into their total talent pool.

Some of these steps include gaining a deeper understanding of the company’s talent through an online professional passport assessment that identifies strengths and competencies to ensure that the employer knows how to hire, motivate, manage and support employees throughout their tenure with the organization. For example, employers can talk to all employees, once they reach age 50, about how they envision the mid- to late-career phase unfolding so that they will be motivated and learn new skills until the day they leave. a new set of practices needs to be put in place to address the psychosocial needs of late-career employees—similar to what organizations needed to do when these same baby boomers were in the early part of their careers, looking for work/life supports for themselves and their young families.

Read: Bye bye boomers: Exit strategy

Hydro Ottawa: Engaging the ages
The following three organizations recognize the potential impact that demographics could have on their operations. they’ve implemented innovative programs, policies and strategies aimed specifically at their older workers in an attempt to retain as much talent, experience and industry knowledge as possible. In fact, they’ve done it so well that each company won a Best employers award for 50-Plus Canadians earlier this year.

At Hydro Ottawa, 42% of the workforce is set to retire over the next 10 years, representing 8,015 years of experience. In 2013, the company created an engagement strategy for older workers called Prime time. the strategy integrates age and aging into the diversity plan to create an even more inclusive culture.

The strategy includes the following elements:

  • providing recognition events for older workers;
  • extending employee discount offerings to retirees;
  • helping older workers to master new technologies;
  • including pre-retirement workers in the company’s mentoring program to enhance knowledge transfer;
  • formalizing transitional and flexible work opportunities;
  • establishing a retiree association and newsletter so retirees can stay connected with the company; and
  • creating a retiree resource pool.

The retiree resource pool was an immediate success. at the end of 2013, 33% of temporary positions had been filled by retirees who could immediately jump into operational, technical and support roles.

Sodexo Canada: Focusing on the future
One-third of employees at Sodexo Canada (a global outsourcing company that provides food, housekeeping and facilities management services to companies across the country) are over age 50. It was becoming increasingly important for Sodexo to engage and retain these employees as well as to encourage them to help train the next generation.

The company established a number of initiatives to address the entire continuum of employment for older workers, from recruitment to retirement. Last year, Sodexo began actively recruiting older workers with the appropriate and desired skills through ThirdQuarter, an online job service for mature Canadians across the country, and providing workshops to ensure that older individuals have the knowledge and skills to move within the company. Older employees are also included on Sodexo’s “right start teams”: experienced personnel who help launch new workplace locations.

Initially, Sodexo was concerned about the dynamics of its multi-generational workplace, so it began pairing younger and older workers in mentoring relationships to help younger employees adjust to the business world and acquire the hard and soft skills necessary to succeed. What it didn’t expect was how much the mentors would benefit. Older workers reported that their protégés taught them new technological skills and made them excited about the future.

Read: How to retain employees

Altagas: Tapping into talent
Twenty-three percent of AltaGas employees have more than 20 years of service, and the average age of the workforce is 44. the Calgary-based energy company has many innovative programs for mature workers, including a retiree resource pool.

The pool provides AltaGas retirees with opportunities to continue working on a part-time, temporary or project-based basis. the program benefits everyone: AltaGas gets short-term assistance and immediate access to knowledge; retirees can stay connected to former colleagues and earn extra income.

AltaGas also offers flexible work arrangements, including job-sharing. at one facility, two operators—each with more than 30 years on the job and with knowledge that AltaGas wants to retain—share one position.

To support those who choose to continue their careers beyond the typical retirement age, AltaGas negotiated enhancements to the benefits package, removing the termination age cap for employee basic life and dependent life, extended healthcare and dental coverage, and basic accidental death and dismemberment. It also increased the termination age for employee and spousal optional life to age 71 from 65.

Many older employees want to continue working after age 65—but on their own terms. time will tell if these programs helped Hydro Ottawa, sodexo and altaGas retain enough older employees to ensure business continuity, but early feedback is extremely positive. most important, these companies are recognizing the value of older workers.

While baby boomers are the healthiest generation in history and can expect to live 20, 30 years or more past the traditional retirement age of 65, they will leave their employer if they don’t feel valued or appreciated—but they won’t leave the workforce. they’ll take their knowledge, skills, experience and industry contacts, and they’ll start their own businesses or pursue opportunities with a company that has a focus on mature employees. that’s a chance that companies just can’t afford to take.

Barbara Jaworski is CEO and chief KAA-Boomer of the Workplace Institute.

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