A tsunami warning has been issued for the Rochester business community. Call it the Silver Tsunami alert.
As a society, we are growing old; which means the workforce is growing old.
Nationally, 31 million jobs will become available next year through the retirement of baby boomers, according to data from the National Human Resources Association (NHRA).
“How do we manage and transfer that knowledge? How do we retain that knowledge?” said Laura DiNatale, director of people resources for Goodwill of the Finger Lakes and president of the NHRA/Rochester affiliate.
The issue could be even more acute in the Rochester area. A study by the Center for an Urban Future and AARP found that between 2007 and 2017, Monroe County’s population of residents age 65 and older grew by 14,163 while the under-65 population declined by 86,899. That 65-and-older age group made up 16.8 percent (125,798) of the county’s total population (747,642), according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Those demographics transfer to employment statistics as well. In the Rochester metro area, 23.1 percent of the workforce is considered “aging,” or 55 or older, compared with 21.4 percent nationally, according to Burning Glass Technologies, an analytics software company that studies labor force trends.
That means of 388 metropolitan statistical areas nationwide, Rochester ranks 118th when it comes to older workers, per Burning Glass. Among 206 metropolitan statistical areas with more than 100,000 residents, Rochester is 48th, a tick younger than Grand Forks, N.D., and Akron, Ohio, and a tick older than Philadelphia, Rochester, Minn., and South Bend, Ind.
Employers are well aware, too.
“I think it’s a pretty significant concern,” Dave Phillips, training manager at GW Lisk, a manufacturing firm in Clifton Springs that employs around 750 people. “We have a lot of long-term employees and they’ll be thinking about retirement in five to 10 years. We need to be prepared to back-fill those positions.”
But they can’t fill those spots with just anyone. That’s the real fear; massive “brain drain” for an organization, in which a large group of older employees leaves at once, said Ann Marie Cook, president and CEO of Lifespan. With the older employee goes a significant loss of institutional and organizational knowledge.
One remedy: don’t let employees get away if they’re at retirement age.
“Companies are investing time and resources into the incumbent workforce,” said Lynn Freid, regional director for the Finger Lakes/Genesee Region of Workforce Development Institute (WDI). “They don’t want anybody leaving any more, so they’re investing more than ever in workforce development.”
Workforce Development Institute is a state nonprofit organization that identifies targeted strategies to address issues facing employers, especially in the manufacturing industry. Workforce retention, even for older employees, is becoming popular in many fields.
“Many baby boomers are not looking for a hard retirement,” Freid said. “They want to still work part-time. They want a more flexible schedule that works with their retirement plans, so they become part of, and one of, the workforce solutions.”
In many cases, that’s just fine with the employer, since many firms have devised plans to scale back on hours but still retain a valuable employee.
“We’ve seen a lot of a more phased retirement,” DiNatale said. “Would you consider a part-time arrangement that would allow for the training of a replacement?”
Phillips fits that category at GW Lisk.
“I’ve retired but I’m still working,” he said. “We have folks here that have retired but still work part time. It’s a slow glide out. It helps the company, it helps them.”
But the flexible scheduling isn’t just for those entering retirement. It can be a job benefit for everyone. Paychex, the area’s fourth largest employer with around 4,750 employees, is one company that is adapting to entice potential employees to join the firm—and stay.
“We have a lot of programs we’ve put in place that are available to all employees,” said Laurie Zaucha, vice president of human resources and organizational development at Paychex.
That includes paid family leave, which provides new parents with time for baby bonding or older employees with time to care for an aging parent.
With more than 15,000 employees companywide, Paychex isn’t pushing anyone out the door, either. Employee ages range from 19 to 78.
“If people are doing the work, we love to have them,” Zaucha said.
One local firm relatively immune to the Silver Tsunami is Wegmans. The area’s third largest employer (13,053 local workers) has always had a workforce that spans the age spectrum.
“For a number of years our workforce has included everyone from age 15 to age 90, and every generation in between,” said Jo Natale, director of media relations for Wegmans.
“While we realize it is an issue for some (companies), given the nature of our workforce, we haven’t been impacted. Wegmans is often the first job for many young people. Some stay with us and some go on to other careers. And some become our employees as a second career.”
One national company that has found a way to combat an aging workforce is CVS Pharmacy, which has around 20 stores in the Finger Lakes region.
CVS not long ago had a “snowbird” program, which essentially allowed northern workers to migrate to CVS stores in warmer climates and continue seasonal employment. While the program has been put out to pasture, that nationwide chain now has a Talent is Ageless program.
“We offer alternative work arrangements for mature workers…such as telecommuting, flextime, job sharing and compressed work weeks,” said Mary Alfieri Gattuso, manager, corporate relations for CVS. “Through this program, we’ve integrated the wants and needs of mature workers into our culture to ensure everyone has a place within our company.”
Since a significant percentage of CVS customers are older, the mature worker is an asset, the company says.
“Mature workers in particular provide increased experience, dependability and a desire to learn new skills, so we are committed to making sure they are able to stay working as long as possible with accommodations that work for them,” Alfieri Gattuso said. “We are also committed to having a workforce that reflects the diversity of our customers. As we see the baby boomer generation age, having staff in our store that can personally relate to these customers—our fastest growing customer base—is a differentiator for us.”
That’s not always a viewpoint expressed by every company. Cook of Lifespan said a bias against older adults—and older employees—is still very prevalent.
But those attitudes must change, she said, if only because the numbers are growing. In the mid-1990s, 12 percent of the workforce nationally was over 55. By 2024, 25 percent of the workforce will be over 55, she said.
“Maybe as more and more people age into their second phase of life, maybe there will be less bias against older people,” Cook said. “Maybe what pushes it is workforce needs. Maybe employers will want to retain older workers to fill that workforce gap.”
That’s happening at GW Lisk. Also in place for their machinists workforce is a training partnership with Finger Lakes Community College. The Advanced Manufacturing Machinist program began a decade ago as GW Lisk’s way of combating a shortage of skilled machinists—and preparing for the departure of workers nearing retirement.
They recently celebrated their ninth graduating class, and a total of 90 students have gone into the workforce, including around 60 at GW Lisk.
“We see a higher retention with people we bring through this program, in particular with new employees,” Phillips said.
But hiring older employees can’t be frowned upon, Cook said, which means they must be able to overcome the age bias during the interview process.
Rita Carey, who provides career development coaching through RCM Associates and conducts a series of seminars for over-50 workers for RochesterWorks!, said the older job-seeker must assure an interviewer that they’re not a mismatch, that they’ll fit right in with the company culture.
And older job-seekers can actually have an edge over younger applicants because of their experience.
“Your resume better show outcomes, not just job history,” Carey said. “That’s where a senior employee has the advantage. They have lots of examples of how what they did impacted the company.”
With an aging workforce come higher health care costs, however. Relph Benefit Advisors works with numerous large employers in Upstate New York. Those employers have, or will have in the next two years, several thousands of employees or employee spouses who are 65, or will be turning 65.
For employers who self-fund their health insurance, costs are impacted by an older workforce.
“Health costs rise as we grow older,” said Eric Lintala executive benefit consultant at Relph.
For Relph clients last year, of high-cost claimants—claims “in the hundreds of thousands of dollars”—six of 10 were by employees or employee spouses age 63-65, Lintala said.
But health care costs are also why some older employees are reluctant to retire. They no longer can expect health care benefits after they’re done working. Or they need the spousal portion of the company plan.
Say a spouse has catastrophic drug costs. “Those costs can be over $10,000 on Medicare but on an employer plan you just pay the co-pay,” Lintala said.
That’s precisely why some small to mid-size firms, as well as large national companies, have pushed more health care costs on to employees, especially when it comes to spousal coverage.
“They’re saying, I’m here to give you coverage, not your spouse,” Lintala said.
So for some, opting out of spousal coverage is wise. It may be cheaper for the employee to have their spouse go on Medicare, he said.
“If an employee is paying $200 for spousal insurance, they might be better off paying $135 for Medicare Part B,” he said.
Which brings us to what some employers may see as the delicate balance of retention vs. cost. It’s quite often more detrimental to let value walk out the door at retirement age before successors have been trained.
That’s why many firms use the “modern elder” approach, as the Society for Human Resource Management calls it. Older managers mentor younger employees, teaching millennials and Generation Zs about becoming leaders. They impart emotional intelligence and transfer leadership behavior attributes, DiNatale of Goodwill of the Finger Lakes said.
Few businesses are immune from the Silver Tsunami.
“It depends on the demographics of an organization,” DiNatale said, “but this has to be a top-five concern.”