Keeping the 50+ Work Force in the House

One company's creative strategies hope to keep its savviest employees from sailing off into the sunset just yet.

WASHINGTON D.C.—Two weeks ago, EDS offered early retirement to 12,000 U.S. employees, the second time the outsourcing giant has tried to cut costs by thinning out the ranks of older employees in this manner in the past three years. Indeed, plenty of organizations figure that the easiest way to cut costs is by cutting ties with employees close to retirement.

But other companies across the United States are taking the opposite approach. Sensing a skills gap on their horizons, theyre spending time and energy today on keeping their most knowledgeable workers on board as long as possible and at the very least creating programs to help transfer their knowledge to newer employees.

In all likelihood, the elder employees are grateful for the attention. Now more than in previous generations of recent memory, individuals are working long past the traditional age of retirement. Employees over the age of 65 cite the desire to stay mentally active (72 percent) and the desire to remain productive and useful (71 percent) as their major reasons for working in retirement, according to an AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) 2007 report, "The State of 50+ America."

That said, the 50-plus group doesnt necessarily want the kind of workplace theyve always had, and companies desperate to keep them in the fold are providing them with as many accommodations and perks as they can.

Barbara Santella, manager of staffing and university relations at Westinghouse, knows all about this looming skills-gap crisis.


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"While many companies are faced with an ageing work force, the energy work force is especially hard hit. A lot of our knowledge is with the most senior members of the work force. Twenty percent of Westinghouses work force could retire today if they wish. Fifty percent will be eligible in the next five years," said Santella at a session on the 50+ work force at the U.S. Chambers ICW (Institute for a Competitive Workforce) at its annual Education and Workforce Summit, Sept. 25 in Washington D.C.

Westinghouse cant just recruit from its local community because it requires a very specific set of the labor pool. The majority of its employees are engineers.

"They possess years of knowledge. Its not day-to-day work knowledge, but knowledge in their heads we have to get out before they leave or hold them there until we can put a program in place to transfer their knowledge," said Santella.

Santellas company is instead focusing on a retention program, and her group has constructed an elaborate one.

"We hold retirement seminars for people 50-plus, so they can start planning early on. We ask them to give us an idea of when they feel they might retire. Then we go through and identify what the critical skills and knowledge they have. Once we identify that they have critical skills, we work on retention and knowledge transfer," said Santella.

To keep these key employees from leaving, Westinghouse offers a number of benefits, from flextime to alternative work schedules; alternative workplace rules have also been established so they can log in from home on a part- or full-time basis. Employees who dont want to work full-time anymore can opt for reduced work hours.

But more radically, Westinghouse is trying to make the workplace itself more appealing to older workers.

"They dont want to sit in a cube and just process information all day anymore, so weve tried to set up challenging situations for them. They mentor new employees as they come in, and we also have them direct and lead groups that discuss knowledge on a topic. Weve also boosted service awards, where the higher up you go in your years of service, the bigger the gift you get. Some people are really holding out for those one-carat earrings or the Westinghouse watch," said Santella.

The company also is counting on opportunities beyond gifts and the opportunity to mentor younger workers to retain people longer. For instance, it is about to start building a new nuclear power plant, a project that could take up to 10 years to complete; it is hoping more senior employees find this a compelling reason to hang around.

"If you take a 50- and 55-year-old worker, youre giving them exactly what they want—one more big project that will take them into retirement age. Its a good reason to stick around."


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