Courtesy of The Village Cos.
MCL Industries

Sage Advice about Older Workers

Dec. 12, 2022
Manufacturing often frets about the aging of its workforce. Some nimble companies revel in it.

The past decade has featured a long march of news about manufacturing’s labor shortage. At last count, some 800,000 manufacturing jobs were going unfilled in the United States.

Less well-known, but just as dire, is the underemployment of older workers. Did you know, for instance, that only half of Americans in their 50s are steadily employed? Beth Truesdale, an employment scholar at the W.E Upjohn Institute, calls this phenomenon the “disappearing workforce” because if you consider yourself no longer actively looking for a job, no matter the circumstance, you are not counted in labor statistics. Poor health, caregiving responsibilities and employment and age discrimination contribute to whether an older person leaves the workforce.

And many do. Between 50 and 60, the employment rate drops 20%, according to AARP. More than half of retirees of any age say they were forced or partly forced to retire. And half of workers over 50 will experience an involuntary layoff and go back to work at a lower level of pay.

A major factor in declines in labor participation for older workers is age discrimination, with many skilled, experienced people losing their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, only to be excluded from some job opportunities when companies found themselves understaffed. Click here to read more about the challenges that potential older workers face in simply getting through AI-driven screening systems.

The pandemic made a bad situation for older workers even worse. There were 4.9% fewer men 55 and older in the workforce in August 2022, compared to February 2020—the largest decline of any cohort. The decline was even worse for non-white people. “If you were older and African American, you were three times more likely to be unemployed, long-term unemployed, than the average white person,” Gary Officer, president and CEO of the Center for Workforce Inclusion, told a group of journalists at a National Press Foundation conference on aging in September.

Ever on the lookout for good talent, some manufacturers see hiring opportunities in these statistics, to the point of redesigning work opportunities and rethinking recruiting approaches.

“Manufacturing is one of the industries that very clearly sees the value of older workers,” says Heather Tinsley-Fix, a senior advisor on employer engagement at AARP who has worked closely with Manufacturing Institute researchers. “The goal for them is to keep them upskilled and then figure out how to retain them long enough to make sure that all their wisdom and experience gets imparted to the rest of the workforce.”

No one is arguing against the value of bringing a new generation into a company; nor are they saying that high school Manufacturing Day tours are overrated. The industry’s outreach over the past decade has had a positive effect: 43.6% of the U.S. manufacturing workforce is now populated by millennials, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Gen Z is beginning to represent as well.

A point that might be overlooked, however, is that instead of just girding for massive retirements, some forward-thinking manufacturers are looking at creative ways they can engage, retain and even recruit older workers who have skills and work experience and might still need or want to work. Paying attention to the possibilities of older workers doesn’t mean taking resources from developing younger workers—workers of all ages have similar things they value, and there are ways to tap into and benefit from the strengths of different groups to build more dynamic organizations.

Hiring on Layoffs

Jay Baker, CEO of Jamestown Plastics, a contract packaging manufacturing company in western New York, helped launch a manufacturing club at a local high school that has grown into a pipeline for new workers. But he also seeks out workers at the other end of the age and experience spectrum. When news of layoffs and closings at nearby plants hits, his HR person is “already there, talking to whoever’s handling the HR at that company. ‘Who are your best people? Give me the list.’ We’ve picked up some wonderful people who were tossed into circumstances they didn’t expect to be tossed into.”

The Village Co., a five-company group in Wisconsin that manufactures amusement games like Skee-Ball, actively recruits older workers; more than 30% of the 430-person workforce is 50 and over. Director of Human Resources Krista Blazek says the company values older workers’ “ability to train their skills to new employees,” as well as their dependability and ability to handle conflict. Because they already have experience, they “can be cross-trained and work in multiple areas of our business. They take pride in the work they do.”

TPI Composites, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based manufacturer of wind-turbine blades with 13,500 employees worldwide, recently went through a vetting process for certification from the non-profit Age-Friendly Institute. “Every employer is struggling to hire right now, and I feel that the mature population could be one of the hidden markets that people aren’t thinking about,” says Deane Ilukowicz, TPI’s chief people officer. “People who’ve retired, people who want to come back to the workplace, who want to work part-time or full-time or have flexible schedules. Companies have to get creative and innovative. And I think the more mature population tends to be very reliable, stable, show up on time, work hard.”

In TPI’s recent survey of its workforce, the 50- to 60-year-old age group recorded the highest engagement, and the 50- to 55-year-old group felt the most included. They cited as especially important having meaningful work and being valued for that work, as well as having clear goals laid out before them.

TPI reaps the benefits. “They bring the mentoring,” Ilukowicz says of the company’s older workers. “A lot of what we [produce] is very artful, particularly in blade manufacturing. ... Having people who have done it for a long time teaching the new entrants into the workforce [is important]. You can read a work design, you can read work directions, but you don’t get the nuances of it and kind of the life experience that people have.”

Truesdale defines good jobs for older workers as those not only with good pay and benefits, but also “some control over schedules, over the way that work is done and the timing of when work is done—jobs that offer some worker voice, that offer safe, social and physical working environments and have reduced precarity and job volatility.”

A Flexible Outlook

Parents with young children aren’t alone in straddling work and caregiving duties. There are 600,000 grandparents in the United States between the ages of 40 and 54 who are working and raising 849,000 grandchildren (double that if you count grandparents not in the labor force), according to AARP. Also, according to 20 years of data from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, about a third of U.S. women, at some point in their 50s, provide intensive caregiving to parents or in-laws. This limits their ability to work long hours on a fixed schedule.

So it makes sense, as several interviewees mentioned, that manufacturers who find innovative ways to be flexible with scheduling are better able to compete with sectors offering remote work. Shop-floor workers need to be on-site, of course, but employers can offer part-time and seasonal work or have flexibility around time off in the middle of the day.

Giving older workers a say in when they work is not a crazy idea, even for manufacturers, says Ruth Finkelstein, executive director of the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging. Finkelstein, who ran an awards program recognizing New York workplaces that innovate around aging—like Brooks Brothers, Steinway and Lee Spring—suggests manufacturers “be open to retirees working partial days.”

Dialing-up and dialing-down work hours as an employee’s caregiving responsibilities change, for example, supports flexibility. She adds,. “If the employer is able to be flexible, then what they get is a very motivated and grateful employee, who may be willing to come back to work on a different basis.”

At the Village Cos., workers nearing retirement or returning retirees often seek out the electrical assembly division, which involves fairly intricate work that requires special know-how. The physical demands are few, however; mostly sitting. “That group of people can do the work in those areas exceptionally well,” says Paul Knoll, the company’s chief operating officer. “We’ve adjusted our work around them to make sure we could enable that. We do part-time. We work with their timing schedule. Some of them just want to work to make money to buy the grandkids presents over Christmas.” He adds that the company has offered four-day work weeks to all of its employees. And if a parent or grandparent wants to go watch a kid’s basketball game, “we make sure we make time to allow them to do that, and we do that for our entire workforce.”

Finkelstein highlights an industrial-sized artisan bakery in New York, Amy’s Bread, as an exemplar of task adjustment according to workers’ capabilities. The bakery started small in the 1960s, but over the years as the business grew, the founding bakers began to have rotator-cuff problems from lifting 50-pound bread trays. So they began rethinking the jobs. Older bakers generally became responsible for overseeing kneading and shaping, while younger apprentices put the heavy trays in the oven. “Every single piece of a process doesn’t have to go together in the same job,” says Finkelstein. “You can customize it to better address the needs of your staff.

“Start from the mindset of, ‘I’m gonna value my experienced workers because I know that they’re bringing something to the company,’” instead of “ ‘Well, you know, it would be nice to have him but since he can’t lift 50 pounds up over his head anymore, he’s done,’” Finkelstein adds.

Sometimes, the benefits of changing things up can be delightfully unexpected. At a spring manufacturer AARP’s Tinsley visited, leadership reassigned an older shop worker concerned that the physical parts of his job were becoming too challenging to an office job in the work-order department. Immediately, people in the department “started to learn things about the shop floor that they didn’t know,” she recalls.

Some of these policies might qualify as an informal kind of phased retirement involving a change in tack, rather than a heavy lift for human resources. Finkelstein calls it “the ability to kind of dial up and dial down your engagement with work as responsibilities impinge.”

The benefits are clear: A 2021 AARP/Manufacturing Institute survey of leadership at more than 200 manufacturers found that many companies see that employees nearing or already at retirement “can be of significant value by being able to answer questions or cover shifts during times of high need.” A metal fabricating company CEO in the study said that one of his employees “retired three times already after 44 years of service is back on my shop floor” training new employees. “We are better off for his efforts.”

Learning, Collaboration Opportunities

Workforce training isn’t age-dependent. “Don’t make assumptions that only younger people will need or want to learn new skills,” Tinsley says. Older workers can learn new technology. “You don’t lose the ability to learn as you age.”

Done right, training can also become a multigenerational collaboration that extends beyond the task at hand. The Village’s electric assembly area has become a “starter area” where almost all new hires come through and get training with retirees or the soon-to-retire. The veterans “do a nice job of inviting them in and introducing them and teaching them the ropes,” says Knoll. “It’s not perfect for sure. There are some age gap challenges. But by getting them working together early on, that tends to close that gap.”

Manufacturers in the AARP survey overwhelmingly valued multigenerational training to help with knowledge transfer and tap into the expertise of seasoned workers. Success hinged on establishing a clear system of knowledge transfer with specified topics for discussion—have a checklist of the processes and topics that you need to cover.

Trainers at MCL Industries, the Village’s electrical assembly company,  have a wealth of knowledge to share and the ability to take initiative and accomplish the task at hand with minimal direction, Blazek wrote in an email. “They make decisions as needed.” Without them, “we would not be where we are at from a training of new hires perspective… They are reliable workers who have a passion for what they do. Many times, this is not just a job but a career for them.”

Respect and Recognition

All workers flourish when leaders listen to their insights and peers appreciate them for the value they bring. Older workers are no exception “I’ve been in HR for a long time, and I think when people really understand what their expectations are, how they’re going to be measured and it’s clear and transparent, that means a lot to people.," says Ilukowicz. Focus groups with leadership and real-time surveys where workers can also communicate back and forth with leadership help keep the conversation going.

It's important to include age in diversity training, says AARP, and honor retirees’ contributions, including them in celebrations. The good feeling, after all, is contagious. Until the pandemic hit, the Brookdale Center hosted an awards program for companies that were doing things right around older workers, involving a rigorous selection process. Companies that were finalists, including several manufacturers, were “invited to come to this fancy breakfast and bring as many employees and board members as they wanted to,” says Finkelstein. “They got to be kind of sweet and wonderful; there were big groups of garment workers who got to go to the top of the Rainbow Room and all get up on the stage together.” Some of the garment workers, from the (sadly, now-closed Brooks Brothers factory in New York), got teary-eyed telling their stories about how they were listened to and respected.

Interest in older workers ebbs and flows with the employment cycle, says Finkelstein. “I’ve now seen the cycle ebb and flow, like three separate times.” But in manufacturing particularly, “I do think there’s a change,” she says. “It’s one of those periods where people start thinking about brain drain, start looking around and realizing, ‘Oh, my God, there’s nobody here who actually knows how to do this.’”

Main photo: Workers collaborate at MCL Industries in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of The Village Cos.

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