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Time for a new look at older workers

The American population is getting older, and Idaho’s is as well. In 2000, there were about 330,000 people in our state who were age 50 and older. By 2010, the group had grown to about 480,000. By 2030, the figure is projected to reach almost 700,000, more than double what it was when this century began.

At the same time, many older adults want to stay in the workforce longer than older employees did in the past.

What does all this mean for individual workers and for businesses in Idaho?

Older workers have earned a reputation for commitment and reliability. They bring to the workplace important assets such as knowledge, maturity, experience and a proven capacity to get along with customers. In many cases, they serve as mentors to younger colleagues.

The reasons older workers cite for postponing retirement are varied. In a survey of workers 50 and older by AARP and the Society for Human Resource Management several months ago, about four in five said that financial reasons, including health insurance, were the primary drivers for working or looking for work.

About one in five had a non-financial reason, such as enjoying work or wanting to be productive.

The economic downturn has hit older workers hard. On average, people 55 and older who lose their jobs are out of work for about a year.

At AARP, we are connecting older employees to job openings. And we’re affirming the vital role of businesses that actively seek older workers.

This summer, AARP launched an effort we call Work Reimagined, a social network-based jobs program that brings together employers who are seeking experienced workers with qualified professionals looking for new or more satisfying careers. The site for this initiative (workreimagined.org) leverages the platform of the professional networking site LinkedIn.

Through Work Reimagined, experienced workers find job market advice and insights relevant to them in today’s job market. They also find  job openings with the more than 140 employers who have taken the Work Reimagined pledge.

Employers who sign the pledge agree that they:

• Are open to the value of experienced workers

• Have nondiscriminatory human resource policies

• Have at least some immediate hiring needs at the time they sign the pledge

Over the years we have observed a wide variety of best practices by employers when it comes to attracting and retaining older workers. They include:

• Actively recruiting older workers. By maintaining alumni networks, rehiring their own retirees (perhaps on a part-time basis), using senior placement agencies and turning to social media, companies can effectively reach older workers and retirees.

• Offering a culture of opportunity. By providing programs such as tuition reimbursement, in-house training (including job rotations and temporary assignments across departments), and mentoring, employers create conditions for growth on a personal and corporate level.

• Paying attention to health. Some companies offer health insurance to part-time workers. Benefits for long-term care insurance, even if the employee pays the premium, and short- and long-term disability are also valuable for older workers. Health screenings, flu shots, smoking cessation and weight loss programs advance wellbeing and productivity.

• Establishing a secure retirement. By automatically enrolling employees in a 401(k) plan and matching at least part of the employee’s contribution, companies can make a solid investment in their workforce and greatly increase the financial security of their employees. Offering financial education to employees will reinforce this investment.

• Building a flexible workplace. Top companies offer flexible arrangements geared to the modern world. Compressed work schedules, telecommuting, phased retirement programs, on-site care, and leaves of absence with or without pay are accommodations that enable workers to meet family responsibilities and to focus on their work. For boomers who are handling child care responsibilities while also caring for their aging parents, such flexibility is especially welcome.

Employers who readily adapt to the changing workforce will have an advantage as demographic changes continue to unfold in Idaho. It’s time for new approaches to older workers.

Mark Estess is the state director of Idaho AARP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with 178,000 members.

About Mark Estess