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The Numbers Game: How to Address an Aging Workforce

Clint Maun, CSP

In addition to staffing shortages and high turnover rates, many healthcare organizations are now facing a rapidly aging workforce. In fact, since 1980 the number of U.S. workers over the age of 40 has increased significantly. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2010, more than 51 percent of the workforce is expected to be 40 or older; while the portion of the workforce aged 25 to 39 will decline 5.7 percent.

With millions of aging baby boomers, an increasing number of workers are leaving the workforce because of retirement, disability or death. On the flip side, many people are being forced to remain in the workforce. Due to higher life expectancies, improved medical care, changes in savings, and government policies, many Americans are delaying retirement and many retirees are re-entering the workforce. Bottom line: no matter what way you look at it, your healthcare organization must prepare for an aging workforce.

Labor Force Above the Age of 40

Since 1980 the number of U.S. workers over the age of 40 has increased significantly. Here is a decade-by-decade snap shot.

    Year         Percent
    1980         38.6%
    1990         40.1%
    2000         48.2%
    2010         51.4%
Below are some steps your healthcare organization should consider:
  • Assess the age of your workforce. This will help to determine when potential worker shortfalls are likely to occur.
  • Establish replacement charts. An actual diagram detailing who is likely to leave and when will help your planning efforts tremendously. After all, you'll know ahead of time the exact jobs you need to recruit for, and the skill sets required for that position.
  • Get involved with local school systems. This will help ensure that young people are acquiring the skills they need to enter the healthcare profession.
  • Conduct awareness training for managers. Make sure management learns the specific issues older workers face (such as stereotyping) so they can better understand how to manage an aging workforce.
  • Cross Train. Purposely assign younger and older workers to the same work teams to facilitate knowledge transfer. Train younger workers so they'll be prepared to take over retiring workers' jobs. Train older workers so their skills remain current.

Remember to Keep the Right Perspective
It's unfortunate, but it still happens. Stereotyping and negative perceptions towards older employees most definitely exists in today's workforce. In fact, one recent survey showed that over a third of Human Resource managers and those responsible for hiring indicated there was an age they considered too old. This age limit varied from age 36 to age 70. Furthermore, only four percent of employers reported targeting older workers to fill open positions.

Quite simply, these attitudes and perceptions cause a toxic work environment, but more importantly, age discrimination is illegal. Your organization could face serious legal action if it considers "old age" as part of the hiring process. While state law can vary, the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) is a major federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and applicants who are 40 years of age or older on the basis of their age.

While older employees may not be able to run the 40-yard dash as fast as they used to, most of them can still perform their job just as well (or perhaps even better) as they did on their first day on the job. These workers have a variety of skills and knowledge to offer the healthcare profession, so it's vital that they're not shut out or discriminated against.

The good news is that you can do a variety of things to address and avoid age discrimination. Best of all, many of the strategies you execute can actually help with recruitment. After all, older workers are going to be attracted to the places that respect and value them. Take note of the approaches below. They will help put the brakes on age discrimination, and accelerate your recruiting efforts.

Train Your Staff

  • Contact your Human Resources department and get all information on your state's laws regarding age discrimination. Make copies and give them to all personnel who are involved with recruitment and hiring.
  • Incorporate the issue of age discrimination into your training routine for new hires. Make sure employees know not to make any assumptions about an older employee's abilities.

Reconsider the Work Environment

  • If possible, offer flexible work schedules. Scheduling could include attractive benefits such as:
    • Job sharing
    • Part time
    • Self-funded leaves
  • Survey the work environment to make sure that you have the proper ergonomics, lighting, heat, etc in place.

Explore or develop new recruitment options

  • Post notices in senior citizens journals, centers, and professional societies
  • Take steps to ensure that older workers know they're valued and not at a dead end in their careers. For example, you can recognize employees who have been at your organization for 10 years or more. Announce their work anniversaries in the company bulletin or a company-wide e-mail. Make sure everyone knows that many years of dedicated service is valued and rewarded.
  • Educate managers about the advantages of hiring older workers. These employees often carry extensive work experience-which is valuable to any organization.
  • Revamp your benefits package to meet the needs of older workers. Conduct surveys to find out employees' needs and job satisfaction so you can tailor benefits and training programs.

Healthcare organizations must understand the value of retaining experienced and capable employees. By recognizing the value of an aging workforce and the role of retaining older workers, you will help alleviate the anticipated workforce shortage. While the strategies above are not meant to be difficult, they do take continued awareness, education, and participation by both employers and employees. By implementing such strategies, employers will be better equipped to recruit and retain productive and dedicated employees, regardless of age, while empowering all employees to realize their full potential.