Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/30/2009 9:56:07 AM ET 2009-07-30T13:56:07

Anne Staats was 75 when she took a year off work to care for her ailing husband.

After her husband passed away, she was ready to go back to her job as a receptionist for a home care and medical staffing company but didn't want to work full time. Fortunately for her the company, Interim HealthCare in Sunrise, Fla., had a program in place to hire older workers and allowed her to return to work three days a week with full benefits, including vacation and sick time.

“I was lucky to be working for Interim,” says Staats, now 85. “Other companies would look at you and say, ‘You’re too old.’”

Staats is indeed one of the lucky few who work for a company that’s paying real attention to retaining and recruiting older workers. Unfortunately, the track record for most firms in the United States is lousy, and the recession has only made things worse, experts say.

“Before the recession, some major employers were starting to become increasingly aware of including older workers and becoming far more receptive to being age-friendly," says Bob Skladany, vice president and chief career counselor for RetirementJobs.com. "But during high unemployment, all bets are off."

For years, labor experts have been talking about what needs to be done to accommodate an aging labor force, including flexible schedules, technology to make work easier and retraining programs. But most companies, experts say, are still woefully unprepared even as the work force turns increasingly gray.

The aging of the work force is a fact. More than 40 percent of civilians aged 55 and over consider themselves part of the labor force, up from about 32 percent a decade ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet initiatives aimed at meeting the needs of older workers are few and far between. Few employers, for example, offer the benefit of a snowbird program, which allows workers the option to work in two towns so they can live in warmer climates in the winter. And many employers struggle with issues related to physical demands that pose an increasingly tough challenge for older workers in many professions.

A 2008 report on the aging work force from the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that only 14 percent of companies had formal programs to retain older workers, while 59 percent of human resource managers said their organizations did not actively recruit older workers. A study by recruiting company Spherion Corp. found that only 27 percent of workers 51 and older were extremely or very satisfied with the work/life balance programs offered by employers. That poll was done in 2007, before the economy went south.

Older workers often are hurt by the perception that they are less tech-savvy than their younger counterparts, cost employers more in health care benefits and don’t adapt to change. Discrimination claims among workers 50 and older are on the rise, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Workers filed nearly 25,000 age-related bias complaints with the EEOC last year, up 29 percent from a year earlier .

“Employers’ conscious or unconscious stereotypes about older workers may cause them to underestimate the contributions of these workers to their organizations," acting EEOC Chairman Stuart Ishimaru said at a hearing this month to address concerns about age bias.

The lack of attention to older workers here contrasts with their treatment in some other countries, says Peter Cappelli, management professor and the director of the Center for Human Resources at Wharton University of Pennsylvania. In Singapore, for example, government-driven programs have created opportunities for employees once they hit age 60 to recontract with their employers and work fewer hours or do different things.

For older workers performing manual labor that may require more physical strength, the outlook is often bleaker, experts say. For many workers, the issue is how and when to transition into new, less physical job opportunities, says Deborah Russell, AARP’s director of workforce issues.

“What will be the role of government in helping people make those transitions?” she says. “What will training look like in the future? If you no longer have the physical ability to do it, then it’s important for people to realize that.”

Such a realization, however, may not come easy.

“Most employers look at training as a long-term investment and are hesitant to spend money on training and recruiting workers that aren’t going to stay for that long,” said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University.

Clearly workers can choose to leave a profession altogether and find something new, but many older workers might find it hard, if not impossible, to truly reinvent themselves.

“Most people continue to do the kind of things they have always been interested in,” says Jacquelyn Boone James, co-director of research at The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. “Some people are finding bridge jobs, doing something similar to what they did before but less demanding or for less time.”

Redesigning jobs to make them less demanding, added Chaison, will happen in the workplace only if “it’s economically beneficial to do so.”

In health care — the one major industry that has shown employment strength throughout the deep recession — advocates say more needs to be done to accommodate aging workers, especially nurses and nursing assistants.

David Schildmeier, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, says the average age of a nurse today is 47 to 48, and employers need to put equipment in place that will help them do their jobs, especially patient lifting systems. “They have to walk miles every day, and they have to move 300- to 400-pound patients,” he explains. “We’ve got an aging population of nurses, and more nurses are going to get hurt or disabled.”

His association is pushing legislation to require systems that help care providers handle patients, something only a handful of states have on the books today.

Older workers may be losing some of their bargaining power to make the workplace more friendly for them. About 70 percent of mature workers plan to work into their retirement years, and the most common reason cited is “a need for money,” according to the AARP.

“More people are going to have to work longer because they haven’t saved enough,” said James of the Sloan Center. “It used to be more of a choice.”

But employers don’t have to break the bank to cater to an aging workforce.

Amanda Puppo, CEO of MarketReach, only had to make minor adjustments for the older workers at her Hightstown, N.J.-based company, which provides telephone marketing solutions.

“The older midlife women tend to want it a bit colder," she says. "The older men need it a bit warmer — go figure."

The solution? Puppo had fans installed at individual workstations.

Omar Soliman, CEO of Tampa, Fla.-based College Hunks Hauling Junk, found that a lot of his older workers were against using text messaging and social media, technologies his moving business relied on.

“We started what I call 'Back to the Future' training once a month and condense useful tech stuff into two hours,” he says.

The program appears to be working. Soliman said his director of franchising, who is in his 60s, at first was reluctant but now only uses texting to communicate.

Sometimes it’s as simple as providing more flexibility.

Every year, AARP publishes a list of “Best Employers for Workers over 50.” Last year, Cornell University was at the top of the list.

“Virtually all the companies that made our best employers list offer flexible work options, and some employers are utilizing retired workers to come in and work on special projects or replace someone who’s going to be out of the office for a period of time,” said AARP’s Russell.

Suzanne Fontaine, a 61-year-old pharmacy technician for CVS, wanted flexibility.

Fontaine splits her time between Naples, Fla., and Wyoming, R.I., and takes advantage of CVS’ snowbird program that started in 2005. She works in a pharmacy in Florida for eight months and then works at a Rhode Island CVS for the rest of the year. “The winters in New England are awful,” she says.

In the early 1990s, less than 7 percent of the workforce at CVS was over 50, says Steve Wing, director of government programs at the pharmacy chain. Today the number is nearly 20 percent.

The decision to create programs to retain older workers was made for two key reasons, he explains. The company wanted to keep talented, loyal older workers, but it also was a good PR move. “When customers come into our stores, they’re going to see people who look just like them,” he said.

Whatever the reason, it’s been a great benefit for Fontaine. “If it wasn’t for the program, I would have retired,” she said. “It gives me the opportunity to earn more money.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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