The mature work force Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007
While the rate of new entrants to the U.S. work force continues to decline, its median age is rising steadily. There are 78 million baby boomers, compared to 46 million Gen-Xers behind them. As fewer new workers enter the labor pool, employers will become increasingly dependent on the mature work force — the enormous employed population aged 50 or older.

“This has significant implications for employers and how they recruit, manage and optimize the graying work force,” says Lynn Billing, vice president of staffing services for Spherion Corporation in Atlanta.

Smart Business asked Billing to share her thoughts about the implications for employers and what they can do to maximize the talents and experience of mature workers.

Is there something special that mature workers offer?

Yes. Mature workers can invigorate and improve business through lower turnover and increased stability, experience and leadership. The Spherion Emerging Work-force Studies, conducted by Harris Interactive, show that 55 percent of mature workers are likely to stay with an employer for at least five years, compared to 43 percent of younger workers.

Mature workers offer stability in an era when younger employees have grown comfortable with job-hopping. They bring decades of work experience and industry expertise to their jobs. And their skills can be leveraged to teach and mentor younger workers, analyze and improve processes, and build a strong foundation of company knowledge.

Should employers do anything different to recruit mature workers?

To be sure you reach mature candidates, employers need to cast a wider net when advertising job openings. For example, job boards, social networking sites and classified ads may not be as effective as professional associations, professional recruiting firms and community organizations.

There’s also a growing trend for experienced managers to take on project work and other flexible or temporary assignments as a bridge to later retirement. These workers offer depth and breadth of experience and proven leadership skills. Hiring them on a contract basis gives employers more flexibility in structuring their permanent work force and payroll.

Speaking of payroll, don’t mature workers demand more compensation?

That’s a really interesting point. Most companies tend to link compensation to tenure or experience. They tend to fill lower-level positions with the youngest workers and pay less compared to more experienced levels. However, the reality is that there are plenty of senior, experienced people who are willing to fill lower-level jobs that will enable them to ease into retirement or continue to work while collecting pensions, accruing retirement savings, and so on.

Forward-looking companies are updating their current thinking and adjusting HR hiring, compensation and benefits models accordingly.

Do mature workers require special accommodation?

The key to successfully managing mature workers is flexibility. While not all are planning immediate retirement, many have already achieved their core career goals and are looking for different things now. Climbing the corporate ladder is not typically a priority — many have been there, done that. Instead, they may be looking for new and different opportunities to contribute, or for flexibility in the way they work, such as four-day work weeks or the ability to work from home, for example.

For many, good health care benefits are more important than salary. We’re also seeing the desire for reduced job-related travel, for less pressure, and for a better balance between work lives and personal lives — between business and leisure.

What can employers do to leverage this unique resource?

There are a number of actions employers can take to make the most of their existing mature work force, or to attract new employees. Provide them with the flexibility to cut back their time in the office by enabling them to work from home or work part-time instead. The freedom to work fewer hours and to telecommute is often viewed as a well-deserved reward for years of what may have been long days and high-pressure work.

Mature workers often find it extremely rewarding to apply their knowledge and experience to completely new functions, and may be very happy to move laterally in an organization. Upward advancement, typically, is not their driving force — but a change of pace and a new learning opportunity can be.

It’s important to recognize that mature workers are just as interested as younger workers are in learning, gaining new skills, and making a contribution.

LYNN BILLING is vice president of Spherion Staffing Services in Atlanta. Reach her at LynnBilling@spherion.com or (678) 867-3097. For information about Spherion visit www.spherion.com.