As Skilled Workforce Ages, Flexibility is Key to Business Success

During National Work & Family Month this October, many employers will be tempted to ask, 'why now?' With unemployment near record highs and even successful companies struggling to keep workers on the payroll, it's natural to think this is not the right time to focus on the added benefits of workplace flexibility. But for older workers--and for their employers--there is no other time but now.

The aging of the baby boomer population is poised to reshape the workforce in ways not seen since the widespread inclusion of women in the workforce in the latter half of the 20th century. Older workers now make up a larger part of the workforce than ever before (31.2 percent of working Americans are over the age of 55), and more and more people are working past the traditional retirement age. Personal economic hardships caused by the recession will almost certainly ensure this trend continues over the next few years. But just as older workers have become more dependent on continued employment than in the past, employees have become dependent on the skills of these older workers.

A new series of reports from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College examines the implications of the aging workforce across a broad range of industries. What we found in every case is that despite high unemployment, companies are more dependent than ever on their aging, experienced workers. There is, of course, no labor shortage at the moment, but many industries report a shortage of skilled labor. Employers don't hire 'just anyone' to fill skilled positions; they rely on people with the requisite experience and competencies. In many cases these skilled workers are older workers, and as the economy recovers in coming years, employers will only grow more reliant on their existing, experienced workers.

For example, manufacturing and health care are two fields dominated by older workers who possess very specific skill sets. Because many jobs in these sectors simply cannot be filled by workers without the proper skills and training, companies are dependent on keeping many of these aging employees past traditional retirement age. And as the economy picks up and demand for skilled workers grows, employers will be scrambling to stem turnover, attract replacement workers with the necessary competencies, and facilitate knowledge transfer from one generation to the next. So keeping many of these skilled employees in the workforce will be crucial, not only to workers and their families, but to employers, too.

In order to retain these workers longer and to recruit adequate replacements, employers have to start thinking beyond compensation. Workers at all career stages report they want increased flexibility, but this desire is especially strong among older workers, who are particularly attracted to jobs that allow for flexible work arrangements and time off for family commitments. In rigidly organized industries such as manufacturing, embracing changes like flexible work arrangements will be crucial if companies hope to recruit and retain the best employees in coming years. And because there is no one-size-fits-all solution, companies need to start experimenting and see what works today.

However, this looming crisis is not limited to fields dominated by older workers. Sectors currently staffed predominately by younger workers--such as retail and accommodations/food services--will see a change in the demographics of their workforce as the population ages in coming years. These fields are currently marked by high turnover and high rates of job dissatisfaction. Employees already experience challenges recruiting and retaining workers with the skills and commitments needed to perform their jobs effectively. As the workforce ages and demands for flexibility grow, it will get even more difficult for companies in these fields to retain good workers. The jobs as structured today are simply not tenable to many older workers. Employers who respond to their workers' desires--not just for increased compensation, but for more flexible workplaces, too--are the companies that will succeed in the 21st-century economy.

While the state of the economy today makes it somewhat difficult to imagine, in the very near future companies will have to do more than provide substantial compensation and benefits to keep skilled workers. By considering flexible work arrangements, expanding talent management strategies, and involving employees in decision making now, companies can prepare to meet the needs of tomorrow's workforce. But we have to start today.