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Business Trends: When boomers gray

As workers age, employers look for opportunities

Companies are looking at innovative ways to keep aging
    boomers on the payroll.
By Joanne Friedrick
August 01, 2010

In 1984, the number of workers 55 and older made up 13.1 percent of the total workforce. By 2014, that figure will hit 21.2 percent, showcasing that America is dealing with an aging workforce. Put another way, beginning next year, approximately 10,000 Americans will turn 65 each day.

As a result, companies are looking at a labor pool of potential retirees and the seafood industry is not immune to this trend.

Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association in Annapolis, Md., has witnessed an aging workforce for the past 20 years. Crab pickers and oyster shuckers were historically women holding a second, part-time job in addition to their homemaker duties, he says.

In past generations, he says, mothers brought their children to work with them and the offspring learned these skills at their mothers' knees. But workplace rules and changing lifestyles, such as women entering the workforce full time, have put an end to that, he says.

Likewise, says Sieling, company owners along Maryland's shore are also aging and retiring, reducing the number of businesses. "Twelve years ago we had 50 [seafood] plants. Today that's closer to 25," he says.

Because many businesses, including the seafood trade, didn't pursue young employees, they are paying the price today, says Joyce Gioia, president and CEO of The Herman Group, an employee retention and management consulting firm in Austin, Texas.

That leaves a couple of options, she says: Figure out a method of attracting and retaining younger workers or work on keeping older workers on the payroll.

To court the next generation, Gioia says companies must create a culture within a culture, which can be achieved by hiring a group of younger workers and giving them projects and social opportunities so they bond and want to stay together.

By fostering an internal culture, these employees are less likely to leave after a year or two as is often the case nowadays.

Because the mindset among younger workers is different, it's important as well to give them a variety of tasks whenever possible. In an environment such as a seafood processing plant, Gioia recommends mentoring young workers and rotating duties so they get a flavor for all the possibilities within an organization.

"It's a way to eliminate boredom and represent the nature of the different jobs," she says.

Internships, apprenticeships or work affiliations with schools can also channel younger workers into the workplace, she says. Sometimes students at risk of dropping out will succeed by working and having the employer support them while they go for their GED, she says.

For those at or nearing retirement age, Gioia says employers should think about offering phased retirement, so older workers can leave on their own timetables. This could mean having them work on a part-time basis, job sharing or adjusting their hours. Instead of working full time, year-round, prospective retirees may be interested in working seasonally, she says.

As with the new, young employees, creating an attractive social setting for older workers can make them want to stay on the job longer. Some companies, Gioia notes, have developed social clubs in which older workers can participate.

Another avenue to explore is what Gioia calls the "overlooked populations," such as displaced homemakers, ex-offenders and foreign workers. The first group, she says, often consists of women who, through divorce or death of a spouse, now find themselves entering the workforce for the first time, but with few skills. With this group, she says, the barrier to working is often childcare, so companies that provide it or support it in some way have a better chance of attracting these potential employees.

In his area, Sieling says the answer to a dwindling local workforce has been the H2B guest-worker program. Primarily coming from Mexico, these seasonal workers have taken on the jobs that were once filled by women working part time in the seafood plants.

"H2B was like manna from heaven," says Sieling. Initially, he says, the cap of 66,000 workers nationally was never reached and the industry had access to all the help it needed.

According to the Maryland Sea Grant, in 2007, 56 percent of Maryland firms that produced 82 percent of the state's crabmeat relied on H2B visa workers.

But as word got out, other industries started to hire H2B labor before the seasonal seafood work began, Sieling says, "and we were frozen out."

In answer to this, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski authored a returning-worker exemption, holding jobs for those who wanted to come back to work during the peak season of April through 
November, Sieling adds.

After working under the expanded cap for returning workers that pushed the level to 72,000 workers for several years, it has been returned to its 66,000 total, split evenly for the first and last six months of the year.

Even with a tough economy, Sieling says it has been 
difficult in the past year to find local people to fill the needed positions, especially under the split cap. And Sieling says only a handful of seafood processing plants still employ local workers, and most of those are older women.

Holding onto aging workers isn't easy, agrees Gioia, but companies have done it successfully by being flexible and recognizing the input from long-time employees.

"Show your appreciation," she says, "and acknowledge the gifts they can give to younger workers." Oftentimes, she says, workers will stay on if their contribution is acknowledged.

"An older person is a terrible thing to waste," she says.


Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine


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