Column: companies ignoring senior employees

The Northern Nevada Development Authority (NNDA) continues to be surprised by the number of calls we get from managers who are struggling to recruit and retain members of the younger generations, while no one seems interested in a technique or two to keep the older generations around. Companies today are so focused on attracting young people that they are ignoring one of their most valuable resources...their senior employees. And they're in for a rude awakening over the next few years as "traditionalists" (those employees born prior to 1945) and older baby boomers become eligible for retirement and begin to leave their companies in droves.

How serious is the problem? A 1998 study by McKinsey & Company revealed that over the next 15 years, the demand for bright, talented 35- to 45-year-olds will increase by 25 percent and the supply will decrease by 15 percent. There simply won't be enough bodies around to fill key positions.

And as employers fight this wicked war, they are constantly complaining about the quality of applicants. The ironic thing is that they are so busy scanning resumes from the outside they are often blind to the fact that the characteristics they are looking for are right down the hall. For example:

-- Loyalty - Traditionalists are the people who invented the one-page resume. Job-hopping was almost unheard of and many stayed with the same employer for their whole career.

-- Experience - Many traditionalists have incredible relationships with their company and its products, and with its customers as well. They've had experience in virtually every type of economy, and they've seen all that competitors have to throw at them. Veteran workers have lived a company's history, and this history is exactly what future managers need to hear so that mistakes only get made once and golden opportunities are not missed.

-- Consistency - With turnover rates on the rise in virtually every industry, seasoned workers can provide much needed continuity for a corporate culture. This might mean keeping alive a constant sense of a company's purpose and identity. The good news is that most traditionalists have bigger and better plans than sitting on a porch swing all day drinking iced tea. In fact, one recent study revealed that 49 percent of traditionalists who retire plan on returning to work. To take advantage of that, companies need to find ways to spot 'em.

Many fare good at spotting a 25- to 35-year-old with spunk and potential, but few are taking time to spot the 55- to 65-year-old with the track record, energy and imagination to blend into a new role.

Whoever said there is a magic age when you should stop discussing an employee's career track? Many traditionalists have wonderful ideas for taking on fresh new responsibilities but have never been asked by their companies to do so. From consulting work to managing start-up divisions to handling client relations, the companies that can create opportunities that keep traditionalists passionate about their work will win the "war for talent."

In that sense, training is one of the better investments a business can make. The Bureau of the Census has found that 28 percent of 55- to 64- year-olds are enrolled in some form of an educational program. In short, many traditionalists are willing and ready to learn. But many companies seem to put far less emphasis on learning and training for older employees than they do on their younger counterparts. Companies must embrace continuous learning for all employees and use learning opportunities to kick start stalled careers or push underachievers into overdrive.

It's no surprise that if you want to keep Xers on board, you'll have to explore everything from work-at-home policies to flex time to job sharing. But companies are forgetting the one generation that deserves a little flexibility. Traditionalists have lived and breathed the 9 to 5 concept all their working lives. Companies that can find ways to break this mold and offer the sort of schedules this generation never dreamed of having are uncovering a wonderful retention strategy. Many traditionalists can't imagine going straight from full-time work to full-time retirement. Assisting in the transition creates a win-win situation for everybody.

We cannot be so focused on the new millennium that we forget the past. From world wars to the world wide web, traditionalists have accomplished amazing feats that can serve as a launching pad into the new century.

Kris Holt is the executive director of the Northern Nevada Development Authority.


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