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WHERE OLDER WORKERS WANT TO BE

3 examples of smart business strategies to employ older Maine workers

Date:

February 27th, 2015

This is the second in a monthly, yearlong series called Age of Opportunity about Maine people, organizations, towns and businesses that are helping keep older residents safe, healthy and happy. These innovators present ideas worth spreading.

STITCHING TIME
Each workday, Corliss Fanjoy is surrounded by color and texture. The 63-year-old has been crafting Erda handbags in Dexter for nearly 12 years. She cuts out patterns and linings, and surges the edges so they don’t fray. Each zipper and bag handle must be measured and cut perfectly.

The workers know well the details of their handbags, down to the number of stitches on a bag’s corner. Each bag is sewn from start to finish by one person and made with American-sourced leather, fabric and thread. They’re sold in more than 1,200 stores around the country, from within Yellowstone National Park to the Cambridge Artists Cooperative in Harvard Square to the Island Artisans shop in Bar Harbor.

Most of the women making the Erda bags are over age 60. The knowledge they gained sewing for manufacturers that have closed — such as Dexter Shoe Co. and Creative Apparel — proved valuable for a small business such as Erda, said owner Sue Nordman. They also pass on their expertise to those with fewer years of experience.

“These older workers know so much. They’re such a valuable asset. To not use them or not incorporate them into your business is a huge mistake,” she said.

THE CHALLENGE
With Maine’s aging population comes an aging workforce, and a significant challenge for employers: Within the next 20 years, nearly half the state’s current workers are going to reach traditional retirement age, according to the Maine Department of Labor. At least 40 percent of the current Maine workforce will be 65 or older.

And that segment of the population — 65 and older — is the only one anticipated to grow. The number of people of prime working age — ages 25 to 54 — is expected to decrease through 2030. There are not enough younger workers to fill the gap left by retiring older workers.

A shrinking labor force has ripple effects — not just on the tax base that supports schools, police and plowed roads, but on the culture of communities and the bond of families.

“Older workers have a lot to offer Maine employers but more must be done to help employers understand how to tap that potential. Older workers can benefit from jobs with flexible hours that make use of their social skills and experience. Maine employers must continue to adjust their workplaces to accommodate this talented and underutilized group,” reads a Making Maine Work report by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation.

Maine’s challenge is not just to sensitively and actively recruit new workers but increase older people’s participation in the workforce.

Some business leaders in Maine are thinking in creative ways about how they can engage and support their older workers, and prepare their businesses for the future.

They offer flexible work schedules, succession planning and education on aging, and they are capitalizing on older workers’ experience. The ideas behind their policies are worth learning more about, as they have found their approach is not just good for their employees but also for their business.

ERDA: SETTING INDIVIDUAL WORK SCHEDULES, CAPITALIZING ON EXPERIENCE
At Erda, the one part-time worker and nine full-time workers set their own hours. (They are paid an hourly wage.) For Fanjoy, that means she often gets to work before 6 a.m. and leaves around 2 p.m. The flexibility allows her to care for her two great-grandchildren while their mother works.

No matter a worker’s age, “everyone has families. Everyone has needs. If they’re setting the time the way they want to work, everyone is more harmonious,” Nordman, the owner, said. “I do believe that people have a right to a life, and work can’t interfere with it.”

Still, some employers might remain reluctant to hire older workers, whether for reasons of cost or the ability to retain them long-term.

One survey of 400 employers by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that employers overwhelmingly viewed older workers “as attractive” or “more attractive” than younger workers.

But older rank-and-file workers were seen as having weaker employment prospects than older white-collar workers. In addition, employers with fewer than 100 workers were less enthusiastic about older workers. And older workers were viewed as more costly than younger workers.

Why should work obstacles for older adults be removed?

“First, working longer will allow older workers to bolster their retirement savings. Second, hiring and retaining older workers will help employers deal with projected labor shortages. Third, older workers will contribute to economic growth and increase federal revenues, helping to defray some of the anticipated costs associated with increased claims on Social Security and Medicare,” a 2007 U.S. Government Accountability Office report pointed out. “It is in the nation’s interest for people to work longer, which requires that barriers to continued work be removed sooner rather than later.”

One way to reduce those barriers is for employers, when possible, to offer flexible work schedules or duties that meet the preferences or physical limitations of older workers.

Anne Clukey, 60, of Dexter has sewn all her life, learning the craft from her grandmothers. She uses the flexible work time at Erda to leave for appointments or to baby-sit for family. She works less than 40 hours a week in part to preserve her back, which will ache after a long time sitting. She said she treasures the ability to work on her own schedule.

Clukey and Fanjoy said the work culture is a collaborative one where employees’ ideas are sought. Instead of dictating the design of a handbag, Nordman will ask for feedback from every employee about what style will work best. And employees get together whenever a pattern doesn’t fit to figure out how to make it work. They appreciate the ability to use their experience in meaningful ways.

“A lot of places you don’t get that input,” Fanjoy said.

We’d like to know what articles and books on aging you enjoy reading. Send us titles or links to the best pieces that you’ve read recently on living a full life. We’ll put them all together and let you know the favorites.

CIANBRO CORP.: SUCCESSION PLANNING, MENTORING, EDUCATION
At Cianbro, top managers have created a system to prepare the construction company’s next generation of leaders. They take the uncommon but critical step of deciding who in the company has the skills and work ethic to one day replace them. The managers train and expose those potential replacements to aspects of the business and, when they’re ready to fill management roles, step back.

That’s not all. The managers — the people who put in the years needed to ensure their replacements can do the job — continue to work with their replacements as mentors.

“We’ve had individuals — and have individuals today — who are in significant leadership roles in the organization, they step aside, and they allow the next generation to come in and take that seat. But they work right alongside them,” said Michael Bennett, vice president of health, safety, environmental and human resources, who has worked at Cianbro 18 years.

He experienced that succession planning firsthand.

“The position I hold today, the individual whose responsibilities I took over, is actually still here, and we have reversed roles, and he now reports to me,” Bennett said.

That person is Alan Burton, 63, vice president of the Cianbro companies.

“We’re a pretty dynamic organization, and it takes a lot of energy to do any one of these senior management jobs. I was at a point where I was ready not to be in the line of fire, so to say, and to help with keeping the organization moving forward,” Burton said.

Starting informally in the late 1990s and more formally in the early 2000s, Cianbro’s management team of fewer than a dozen people began talking about how to eventually hand the reins to a new generation of leaders, Burton said. Who would take their places?

Each quarter they discussed their succession plans, who they were considering as potential replacements, and what those people would need to be successful.

Once those with leadership potential were identified, it was up to senior management to make sure they got experience in key parts of the company.

“If they don’t have all of the skills that they need, how do [the mentors] put the support mechanisms in place to make sure they gain those skills and shore up those areas without taking it over? And that’s fascinating. That’s what I like doing,” Burton said. “Now the role is, without doing it, how can you help someone do it themselves?”

Part of developing leaders also involves making sure they understand how the community in which they work operates. They are encouraged to sit on community boards, such as local school boards or construction industry boards, and grow their relationships and networks.

“Those are the types of experiences that are needed. They seem like they are not part of what we do as work, but they’re a huge part of what we do as part of developing and growing the next generation,” Burton said.

Then, when up-and-comers are ready to take on the role, they have time to practice.

“What we try to do is put them in the role without giving them the title of that role. Mike didn’t have the title for the first eight months that he was in the role because he had to show others he was capable of doing it,” Burton said.

Co-workers are accustomed to turning to certain people in their workplace for answers. With a new leader in place, it takes time for them to bring their questions, concerns and ideas to someone new. Bennett made the transition in 2010.

“I’d always let Mike work through it, so he’d develop relationships with those people. Pretty soon they were going to Mike. They weren’t going to me,” Burton said.

Bennett probably wouldn’t be in the position he is now if it wasn’t for Burton. Early in his career, Bennett was looking at other work opportunities.

“At the time I was about, ‘How fast can I grow, and who can give it to me?’” Bennett said. “[Burton’s] guidance was, ‘There’s tremendous opportunity right where you are, and, if you trust us, if you trust me … I’m not promising you anything, but here are the things that you need to consider to position yourself for the future.’ And he was right.”

EDUCATION

The Cianbro Institute is Cianbro’s workforce training initiative that was established to directly improve construction workers’ skills. The multimillion-dollar effort has allowed older workers to use acquired knowledge to become trainers.

The institute has allowed Cianbro to “take skilled people who may get to a point in their career where they physically may not be able to or physically may not want to continue at the same pace that they have. This is a way for them to give back,” Bennett said. “So now they’re teaching the next generations of Cianbro team members.”

The institute has agreements with Maine colleges that recognize training that workers receive for college credits.

In this way, Cianbro is attempting to expand the educational attainment of employees, address a shortage of skilled craftsmen and capitalize on the skills of experienced workers.

Businesses can have a real impact on workforce development, said Steve Pound, who helped create the Cianbro Institute after retiring from a position as superintendent of schools in Greenville eight years ago. They also can ensure those skills are put to good use.

Cianbro measures the success of its training by looking at the performance of its workers. Are they able to work safely and productively? Do they produce quality products?

One indicator of performance lies in Cianbro’s showing at the ABC National Craft Championship, where tradesmen across the country compete in areas such as pipefitting and welding. Cianbro leads the medal count in the country.

L.L. BEAN: SEMINARS ON AGING AND RETIREMENT
Each year, L.L. Bean hosts a series of elder-care seminars for employees called “Taking Care of Mom and Dad and Me” where experts discuss legal issues, Medicare, living with dementia, and finding and accessing community resources. It’s put on by Bridgetree Counseling, which runs L.L. Bean’s Employee Assistance Program.


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