Report says N.H. employers unprepared for aging workers
Granite State businesses are largely unprepared for the potential labor shortage and loss of knowledge that will take place as the state’s workforce ages, according to Deborah Russell, AARP’s national director of workforce issues.
“There’s just simply going to be more older workers,” she said. “This is a huge issue.”
Russell spoke earlier this month to about 50 people at The New Hampshire Forum on the Future, an alliance of higher education, business and policy leaders, at the Highlander Inn in Manchester.
At the forum, AARP New Hampshire released its recent study, “Preparing for an Aging Workforce: A Focus on New Hampshire Employers.” It found that six in 10 employers believe their business will face a shortage of qualified workers in the next five years.
But only one in 10 has taken steps to prepare for the shortage. According to the AARP survey, 274,936 workers in New Hampshire are 45 and older, representing more than 58 percent of the total workforce. The national percentage of workers 45 and older is 50 percent.
The median age of working Americans — half the working population — is 40 or older, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nationally, 20 percent of the workforce will be 55 and older by 2015.
Steps employers can take to prepare include improving technology, hiring younger and older workers, increasing training opportunities, offering alternative work arrangements, offering phased retirement, and changing recruitment efforts, among other things, said Russell. But many employers are getting rid of defined benefit plans, are not willing to hire older workers and see the aging workforce as a human resources issue, she said.
“There is still the head-in-the sand mentality today when you talk to employers,” she said.
While AARP’s study say most businesses aren’t taking steps to address the issue, some businesses say they are doing something about it.
Merryll Rosenfeld, vice president of human resources at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, said the Nashua hospital does a lot to prepare for the aging workforce, and has developing an “Aging Workforce Task Force” to tackle the issues.
Flexible scheduling is one example of what’s already been implemented at the hospital, which has very low turnover, Rosenfeld said. In addition, registered nurses at Southern New Hampshire — whose average age is 43 — will sometimes take positions at the hospital that don’t involve patient care, Rosenfeld said.
The hospital also is implementing a “transport team” in which volunteers bring patients to different rooms, to place less physical demands on the nurses.
And the task force is identifying more opportunities to offer the aging workforce in the future. Among them are seniority-based benefits and workload options. “If somebody has 15 to 25 years experience at the hospital, they’d be eligible for one less week of on-call,” Rosenfeld said. “Or it could be they don’t take any call. We don’t know what it will look like yet.”
Rosenfeld said it’s vital for the hospital to support employees as they age. “You have to keep your mature workforce. They’re very important to this organization. All the knowledge they’ve gained over the years … you have to acknowledge that, to keep them here,” she said. “You don’t want them to leave.”
GT Solar Technologies in Merrimack also is working to address the issue. The company is going to a second shift to give employees a choice of shifts, according to Fred Kocher, GT Solar’s senior adviser for corporate communications.
“We just figured out that we’ve got this older labor force,” Kocher said. “We’ve got to do something to address it.”
The average age of employees at GT Solar is 46, Kocher said, adding that 39 percent of the company’s workers are over 50. “I think companies are just starting to recognize it and adjust accordingly.”
BAE Systems also acknowledges that its workforce is aging, and that is “a real and serious concern for us,” said BAE spokesperson Marianne Murphy.
Most companies face the issue, Murphy said. “When you have long-service employees and an aging workforce, people are getting close to retirement and industry runs the risk of loosing that population. In the next 10 years, it could be nearly a quarter of the population that will be retiring.”
BAE offers a variety of programs – not only for its engineers – to educate the younger workforce. The goal, she said, is to develop future leaders and help retain employees. BAE also offers leadership development programs in engineering, finance, operations, and human resources, and does college recruiting.
Jack McStravock, vice president of human resources at Kollsman Inc., said the issue is the most significant one the Merrimack defense electronics maker will face over the next five years. Kollsman is studying it, he said.
“We need to find a way to retain the current talent, and at the same time, transfer their knowledge to our next generation of employees,” McStravock said.
As one of New Hampshire’s largest employers with about 5,000 employees, Fidelity Investments said it always is looking for talent and believes it is never too early to start building its future workforce.
“We are committed to helping all managers and associates develop their professional skills and we offer a broad range of online and classroom training and development resources to help them do so,” said Alison Stebbins, regional general Manager for Fidelity, in a statement. “We encourage employees to take advantage of these resources to help them be successful in current and future roles.”
Stebbins said Fidelity has more than 150 openings in New Hampshire in the areas of customer service, finance, technology and operations. The company has developed a number of partnerships to educate people about those careers, she said. “We’re also working with New Hampshire colleges and universities to ensure that students are aware of quality career opportunities right here in New Hampshire.”
AARP’s Employer Resource Center can be found at aarp.org/employerresourcecenter. It includes information on workforce assessment, recruitment and retention strategies, workplace law and employer best practices.
– KAREN SPILLER