Engaging Older Workers

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How do you engage older employees in the workforce? Ed Redfern, the senior specialist of education and outreach at AARP, moderated a Monday afternoon session that answered that question.

Two leaders from organizations that won the 2011 AARP Best Employers for Workers over 50 were on hand to contribute to the session as well: Deb Shigley, an HR director of research at Cornell University; and Phil Lenowitz, deputy director of the human capital group at the National Institute of Health.

The discussion was largely a Q&A conducted by Redfern, and the two panelists shared their award-winning strategies.

Both stated that coming up with their strategies around engaging this population took time. Lenowitz said considering that the NIH has a culture that thrives on “the long-term,” it was a no-brainer to find ways of keeping their older workers as scientists and administrative leaders. “We find that managers understand that experience counts,” he said.

One facet of the discussion was that organizations can capitalize on the synergies that the various generations in the workforce can create. Lenowitz said that the NIH’s older, more experienced managers bring in younger people and train them. And every junior scientist at the NIH has a senior scientist.

Cornell has developed programs to retain its older workforce as well.  Shigley said that a few years ago the university offered one-time, early retirement packages to its employees, and over 600 people raised their hands. But they needed uptake from 800 people, which they eventually achieved.

The result wasn’t pretty. “Our best people walked out the door,” Shigley said. “But some wanted to come back, so we looked at what we could offer them.”

That’s when the school developed its Encore Program, which was launched in 2009. It provides ways for retirees to gain new job skills, engage with other retirees and remain connected to Cornell.

Shigley said that Cornell also looked at the Baby Boomers who didn’t take the offer with the knowledge that eventually, they would retire as well. That’s when the university extended its existing Phased Retirement Program to non-academic staff. This program offers the opportunity to ease into retirement – with benefits – while still providing valuable knowledge and service to the school.

Redfern also asked the panelists how they determine which programs for experienced workers to roll out first. Shigley said that Cornell simply asks their retiring staff what kind of programs they want to see. Lenowitz said that AARP receives feedback from its managers.

An audience member asked about educational opportunities for older workers. Shigley said that Cornell allows its retirees to return and take courses they couldn’t take as an employee. Lenowitz said that the NIH’s Senior Leadership Program provides senior NIH scientific and administrative leaders with the opportunity to work with a select group of peers and scholar-practitioners in a number of capacities.

Lenowitz then shared some stats: At the NIH, scientists stay seven years past their retirement eligibility, and administrative leaders stay 4 ½ past their retirement eligibility. “We think that’s a good indication that older workers are happy here,” he said.