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Older, Wiser, and Now Valued

Resource type: News

The Gazette (Montreal) |

Original Source After retiring from a career with the Steinberg’s grocery chain, Gérard Bréhin took a long break from the workforce. But a few years ago, he started scouting around for opportunities. He was looking for a new challenge and contact with people, but not a high-stress job. Bréhin found what he was looking at Home Depot. After working on the sales staff of the hardware chain’s St. Bruno outlet, he was promoted to store manager two years ago. Bréhin is 61, an age when a lot of companies are anxious to shoo employees out the door. Instead, Home Depot put Bréhin’s experience to use. “I found them very evolved in their human resources practices compared to my past experiences,” he said. Home Depot seems to be an exception: Despite dire predictions about looming labour shortages as baby boomers retire en masse, experts say ageism still pervades the workplace at a time companies should be courting older employees. But there are lessons to be learned from countries already in the midst of shortages, where businesses work in tandem with governments to make the workplace senior-friendly. The statistics paint a grim picture: low fertility rates, a rapidly aging population and the appeal of early retirement means Canadian companies will soon have a tough time filling jobs, not to mention replacing the accumulated expertise of senior employees. You’d think employers would be running after older workers, but they’re not. Louis Verreault is blunt when asked about the hurdles mature workers face in the job market. He’s a vice-president and senior consultant with the Montreal office of Drake Beam Morin, an outplacement, coaching and career management firm. “There’s not a lot of employers with practices that encourage the hiring of older workers or the retention of older workers,” Verreault said. Job hunters over 60 are at a particular disadvantage, he said. Managers making hiring decisions are thinking short-term, Verreault said. “They’re looking at what will help the bottom line right now,” he said. These managers think it costs less to hire someone younger, Verreault said. This might be true in terms of salary alone, but it ignores the value of experience and lower turnover among older workers. “It’s a lack of vision,” Verreault said of this short-term perspective. Marjorie Armstrong-Stassen shares Verreault’s views. She runs the Aging Workforce Research Project at the University of Windsor’s business school. Most organizations in Canada are not adapting to the greying population challenge, Stassen said. “I really don’t think employers get it yet, but they will,” she said. “The demographics will be a wake-up call. “There is a lot of age discrimination out there, particularly in recruitment.” Despite data showing mature workers stay longer with their employers than their younger counterparts, who show less company loyalty, employers are still reluctant to hire and train older candidates, Stassen said. “They think they won’t recoup that investment,” she explained. Downsizing practices also are misguided. “The way it is addressed is older workers are given retirement incentives and unions support that approach.” Stassen’s research shows older workers value alterative work arrangements, including part-time and flex-time arrangements, and phased-in retirement. They also put a premium on training and professional development opportunities. But above all, mature workers want respect and recognition, both from their employer and fellow workers, Stassen’s research shows. “It doesn’t cost the company anything,” she said of improving this aspect of work culture. Barbara Jaworski also is critical of how Canadian businesses are failing to adapt to the demographic time bomb. She runs the Toronto-based Workplace Institute, a consulting, training and research group focusing on older worker/ageing workforce issues. What explains this inertia? “Most companies are motivated by pain,” she said. “Companies out west get the issues a lot more, because they are facing greater shortages,” Jaworski said, referring to Western Canada. “The attitude used to be ‘get rid of them in their 50s and bring in the young blood,’ ” she said. “That no longer works.” In her book, KAA-BOOM! How to Engage the 50 Plus Worker and Beat the Workforce Crisis, Jaworski busts open some myths about older workers. A key assumption is that insurance benefits cost more for older workers. While insurance costs do rise with age, they are offset by the fact older employees have fewer dependents making claims, according to Jaworski. And higher vacation and pension costs are often offset by lower turnover among mature employees, which translates into lower recruitment and training costs, she claims. Each year, Jaworski’s Institute sponsors a contest to recognize Canadian businesses with progressive policies toward older workers. Home Depot Canada Inc. is a past winner. Julie Gouin, Home Depot’s human resource manager for Quebec, says the company makes a point of targeting mature workers in its recruitment campaigns. About one-quarter of the chain’s workforce in Canada are over 50 she said. Not only do older employees bring a wealth of experience to the job in areas like the trades, renovation, construction and home decor, they offer other advantages, Gouin said. “They are very loyal, very engaged … very reliable and often serve as mentors for our staff,” she said. Canadian businesses can learn from peers like Home Depot, but also from practices in other countries. In a 2005 report that sounded the alarm about labour shortages, the Conference Board of Canada gave examples of progressive government and private sector policies in Europe and elsewhere. In Sweden, employees have long been able to draw a public pension even if they continue working past standard retirement age. The government also offers public study grants and individual skills assessments for mature workers. In Japan, which also has flexible pension rules, the government gives companies subsidies to remodel workplaces to accommodate older workers. In Denmark, mature workers get a tax bonus if they prolong employment beyond the age of 62. The U.K. has abolished age limits that used to apply to higher education student fee loans. In the United States, the government-funded National Older Workers Information system is a repository of best management practices for using the talents of older workers. Governments in Canada are starting to move on some fronts. Recent changes at the federal level and in Quebec allow employees to continue working while drawing and continuing to accrue benefits under some employer-sponsored pension plans. But here’s the rub: getting Canadians to work longer is not only about fighting ageism, changing pensions and adapting the physical workplace, it’s also about overcoming their “freedom 55” expectations. A recent survey commissioned by the order representing certified human resource professionals and industrial relations counsellors in Quebec (the ORHRI) found this: over one-third of Quebec workers (38 per cent) said they plan to retire before age 60. But it’s also interesting that slightly over half of those surveyed favoured phased-in retirement. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, one in four older workers (55 to 64) are self-employed and one in five work part-time. Bréhin has found a scaled-back job suits him better than complete retirement, at least for now. Many of the older employees who work for him feel the same. “Sometimes they are coming back because they need the money, but a lot are looking to ‘relax’ from a previous career,” he said. “Most work part-time for us.” As for his job as manager, “it’s a pleasure,” Bréhin said. LABOUR POOL WILL SOON BEGIN DRAINING IN QUEBEC Encouraging workers to remain active longer is one way to mitigate demographic shock waves that will soon hit Quebec, according to an economic study released this week by Mouvement Desjardins. If mitigation measures are not taken, Quebec will soon need an annual influx of 300,000 immigrants to stabilize a labour pool drained by a population that is both aging and decreasing, Desjardins’ senior economist Hélène Bégin determined. Immigration alone can not solve the problem, said Bégin, noting the entire country now welcomes about 300,000 immigrants annually. According to projections from Statistics Canada, the Quebec population age 15 to 64 – the potential labour pool – will begin decreasing as early as 2013, whereas that pool will still be growing elsewhere in Canada, she said.

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