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Forget the whippersnappers --
Go gray to fill your job needs

Hiring older workersSmall-business owners bemoaning the tight labor market should look at its silver-haired lining -- a growing pool of older workers.

Owners could use the help. A recent survey by the Small Business Administration showed roughly half the small firms in America want to hire someone -- and more than 60 percent of those firms have difficulty finding qualified workers.

Older workers are the logical place to look -- that's where the numbers are. From 1996 to 2006, the number of people between the ages of 25 and 44 in the labor force is expected to shrink by 4.1 million workers, while the 45-plus age group will increase by more than 15 million.

Yet some business owners hesitate to hire older workers.

Overcoming stereotypes
Beverly Goldberg, author of Age Works: What Corporate America Must Do To Survive the Graying of the Workforce, says that many companies hold misconceptions about older workers.

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One myth is that older workers cannot learn new things. "The fastest-growing group of Internet users in this country is people over 50," says Goldberg.

She notes that employers can increase the chances that older workers will catch on to new things by being sensitive to the fact that many older workers have not been in a classroom setting in years.

"They will be more comfortable with on-site training and being paired with younger employees who have taken the classes and can show them the ropes," says Goldberg.

Healthy and loyal
Another misconception, according to Goldberg, is that older workers are absent or ill more often than younger workers.

"The opposite is true, says Goldberg, "People confuse the fact that older workers may have more chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, with the whole idea of healthiness. Such conditions are treatable by a pill once a day and do not affect attendance. Older workers tend not to be as likely to stay out late and then call in sick. Also, statistics on injuries on the job show that older workers are not as prone to injury, whether as a result of greater experience or more of a 'look before you leap' mentality."

Another area of concern for many employers is turnover. Donald Davis , vice president for Workforce Development at the National Council on the Aging, says studies show that employees between the ages of 19 and 30 have the greatest turnover.

He noted that with improvements in health care, many older employees stay with companies long enough to have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Along with experience, Goldberg says, older workers can also bring valuable business expertise and contacts.

"Older employees can tap into their experience and corporate networks and really help a company grow," says Goldberg.

Paying the older piper
Will these skills create a higher price tag? No necessarily so, says Goldberg. Older workers often seek intangibles such as social contact and a feeling of usefulness, and are less concerned with a paycheck than their younger counterparts.

Because many older workers seek connections and have fewer financial pressures than young people who are acquiring a home and building a family, they are also less inclined to be lured away from a company by an attractive offer, according to Sharon Miller, president of Immediate Temporary Help, a staffing agency based in Midland, Mich.

"Younger people are more concerned with moving up the job ladder and are more likely to leave for a better job," says Miller. Roughly one-fifth of her staff is 55 and older.

Finding a fit
Linda Stiers, manager of Allwood Riverside Florist in Columbus, Ohio, employs several older workers and is pleased with the results. She already had a 64-year-old, a 70-year-old and a 73-year-old on staff when she found out about the federally funded Senior Community Service Employment Program for low-income workers 55 and older.

"We had gone through so many delivery people that it had gotten to be a concern. I hired young drivers who would speed, who didn't want to work Saturdays or overtime, and who wouldn't sweep or take out the trash," says Stiers.

Through the program, Stiers found 55-year-old Dave Jordan. The program paid for Jordan to receive two weeks of on-the-job training, while Stiers could decide if he was the best match for the job.

Stiers says Jordan caught on to the job quickly, is concerned that people get their flowers on time and routinely takes on additional chores.

"He is dependable, reliable and courteous. We don't know what we would do without Dave," says Stiers.

A changing workplace
Goldberg and Davis note that while older workers bring a sense of work ethic and reliability, the thing they seek in return is flexibility.

To attract and retain older workers, businesses will have to make some changes, according to Davis. His suggestions include:

  • Providing more opportunities for temporary and part-time work, including creative arrangements such as job sharing.
  • Offering flextime for full- and part-time employees so they can create their own schedules.
  • Restructuring how jobs are done so older workers can do the same job but spend less time standing or doing other physically taxing tasks.
  • Seeking opportunities to allow older employees to telecommute.
  • Providing sabbaticals and extended vacations that give seniors the chance to pursue other interests and retain ties to the workplace.
  • Implementing phased retirement. It could begin at age 62, gradually ratcheting down the number of hours an older employee works, but keeping them with the company past age 65.

Change benefits?
Changing benefits packages is also a consideration for small businesses looking to attract older workers. Todd McCracken, president of National Small Business United, a small-business trade association, says older workers are less concerned about full family coverage and more interested in benefits such as long-term care insurance.

"Small businesses will be in a better position to be flexible in terms of hours but less able to offer cafeteria-style benefits plans," says McCracken.

Stiers says the investment in older workers will pay off.

"Older workers have a strong work ethic and just need someone to give them a chance. They give employers an untapped resource that will be growing by the multitudes," says Stiers.

Ellen Birkett Morris is a freelance writer based in Kentucky
To comment on this story, please e-mail the
Bankrate.com editors

-- Posted: April 21, 2000


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