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NH employers try to strike balance for aging workforce

By ROBERTA BAKER
New Hampshire Union Leader

September 17. 2018 9:28PM




At 72, Suzanne Wason decided it was time to slow down, but she didn’t want to retire completely. The solution: dropping from five to four days as corporate receptionist at Northeast Delta Dental in Concord, a job she knows well, still enjoys and has held for 17 years. The change gives her time for yoga, genealogical research, book clubs and FRAC, her free-range adventure club, which holds days trips to surprise New England locations once a month. A ramp-down-to-retirement solution reached by Wason and her employer allows her to work three days a week starting next year should she choose to.

“I don’t look at retirement the way my mom and dad looked at it — you just stop at age 65. This is an exciting time,” Wason said. “I’m up and moving and excited to do something. As much as I love my job, I also love many other things I do. It’s much better if you can make a transition, then wake up one morning and say, ‘What do I do now?’”

As New Hampshire’s baby boomers near the retirement threshold of past generations, increasing numbers are deciding to work longer — and the skills, experience and knowledge honed by decades on the job, and the work ethic of older workers, is prized by most employers, according to snapshot surveys of 53 Granite State business leaders. They aren’t sure of how to retain that cumulative know-how when those employee retire or that employees have enough information to make the best decisions about how and when to retire, according to the recent poll by the Business & Industry Association and AARP New Hampshire.

The potential unraveling over time of a highly skilled workforce segment is something for which many employers say they are unprepared. The impact on New Hampshire businesses could be significant. Close to 157,000 workers currently between the ages of 55 and 64 may chose to stay on or retire at 65, taking accumulated knowledge with them. That will put further strain on finding qualified workers, according to Annette Nielsen, an economist at the state’s Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau. It’s unclear how many New Hampshire businesses have formal mentoring programs that enable senior workers to train new workers.

But the impact of the state’s aging workforce reaching eligibility for retirement may not be imminent — and it doesn’t have to be as staggering as expected, experts say. The state and nationwide trend is that a healthier, older population is poised and eager to work longer, according to many surveys. Roughly 34 percent of New Hampshire residents age 65 or older are working, compared to 24 percent a decade ago. In 2000, 17,000 residents age 65 to 74 were employed, compared to more than 48,000 now. Research by AARP indicates that 87 percent want to keep working beyond age 65.

The looming question is: How do seniors and employers make that happen?

One third of businesses responding to the BIA-AARP snapshot survey say they offer a phased-in retirement option for those who want to continue to work beyond 65. Most say they offer flexible hours, part-time work or professional development training to aging workers. Half of the business leaders worry that older employees may not have a good understanding of retirement benefits, including Social Security and Medicare, and company retirement programs.

Some of the solutions for employers and employees are surprisingly similar: phased-in retirement options, reduced hours and flexible schedules, time-off options that cater to employees who care for aging parents or spouses, and job sharing that enables ramping-down workers to train ramping-up newcomers and potential successors. The answer is not a one-size-fits-all solution, said Todd Fahey, state director of AARP New Hampshire. “It’s important to talk to employees about what their plans are and assess what they want — and balance that with the needs of individual businesses, and be open to solutions they haven’t tried before.”

“New Hampshire has one of the oldest average populations in the country and has trouble holding onto young people upon graduation,” BIA president James Roche said. “Older workers are becoming an increasingly important source of experienced labor.”

Employers need to embrace ways to provide incentives for retirement-age workers to stay on the job longer and to transfer their considerable skills before leaving.

“There’s a business imperative to hire anyone who’s capable,” Fahey said. “There’s some unconscious bias about what an older worker is or is not, and what they can bring to the workplace. Employers should look beyond numerical age at ability and interest. There’s a robustness and strength to a multi-generational workforce that employers can’t overlook.”

At Sanel Auto Parts, a family business headquartered in Concord with 43 locations in northern New England and one in Massachusetts, the average age of the company’s 600 employees is 53. Some have been with the company more than 50 years and Sanel has made accommodations to keep them. Older employees work in sales and have valued product knowledge. Long-standing delivery drivers often receive customers’ help unloading heavy boxes.

A retired attorney recently worked as a driver “because he needed a place to go, and it felt like he was adding something,” said David Segal, president of Sanel, who prizes older workers for their reliability, strong work ethic, driving safety and ability to interface seamlessly with clients. “We try to retain all good employees, regardless of age,” Segal said. “We don’t judge in terms of age — just performance.”

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at rbaker@unionleader.com or (603) 206-1514. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.


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