With one-third of his 75 employees age 50 or over, Brian Hughes is already living in the world of 2010. By then, nearly a third of the U.S. work force will have had 50 or more birthdays, according to a report by AARP. That's OK with the vice president and great-grandson of the founder of Hughes Environmental Engineering Inc., a $16 million Montvale, New Jersey, heating and air conditioning service firm. Hughes, 37, interviews people who are nearing retirement as readily as the freshly graduated. And, he says, "the older guy's probably going to get the job."
A similarly welcoming attitude from more employers will become necessary, thanks to the aging and slower growth of the U.S. work force coupled with people's growing tendency to work past normal retirement age. Experts and entrepreneurs knowledgeable about age 50-plus workers say that their experience, skills and loyalty will give an edge to employers who can hire, manage and retain them. As Emily Allen, AARP manager of work force programs, puts it, "They may want to work, but will they want to work for you?"
The advantages 50-plus workers bring go beyond the obvious, according to Robert Morison, executive vice president of Kingwood, Texas, HR research and consulting firm The Concours Group. "People who have taken early retirement are very often raring to go and apply their skills and learn new things," says Morison, co-author of Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent. "And they very often don't want to do it for their old employers. They are tired of the same bureaucracy and want something new."
Employers may also need to learn new skills to attract, keep and manage senior employees. To begin with, recruiting materials are usually aimed at younger candidates, Morison says. Employers should examine their recruiting pitches for signs of age bias and work to brand themselves as friendly to older applicants.
Older employees are most attracted by competitive compensation and benefits, interesting and meaningful work, opportunities for development and advancement, and a flexible schedule, according to AARP's report. Flexible scheduling is especially appealing, Morison says. "We've found that the most popular format for working in retirement is not shorter workdays or workweeks. It's [longer] chunks of time off."
Employers who regard older workers as less likely to enjoy a challenge are in error. "They want variety, they want meaningful work and they want to keep learning things," says Morison. "Don't assume the older worker is used up or won't learn new tricks."
You can make the most of older workers by encouraging them to pass their skills and experience on to others in the company. "Very often, they want to give back to the organization or society," Morison says. Giving them roles as trainers or mentors can accommodate this desire while seeding the company with their expertise.
Along with benefits, older workers can present challenges. For instance, after decades of pay increases based on seniority, cost-of-living or achievement, over-50 employees may earn substantially more than younger workers. They also tend to have higher health-care costs. However, older workers are less likely to change jobs, and AARP's analysis concluded that a company that doubled its percentage of older workers would save all but about 1 percent of the added cost through less turnover, higher productivity, knowledge transfer and other benefits.
Whatever the costs, companies have to learn to hire, keep and appreciate over-50 employees because they are increasingly becoming available. "It's a matter of necessity," says Hughes. "There's not enough talent in our industry to fill the jobs."
Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.