Graying workforce a boon to employersNews added by Benefits Pro on April 30, 2014

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By Allen Greenberg

DENVER – BMW’s South Carolina manufacturing plant, which opened 20 years ago, has assembled an array of workforce wellness, screening and other programs aimed not just at recruiting new talent but also retaining older workers.

The result? A retention rate of 95 percent, an envious statistic at a time when employees nowadays will jump ship, it seems, just because they can, especially as the economy recovers.

Jerry Johnson, the risk manager at the BMW plant in Spartanburg, S.C., highlighted his company’s retention tactics at a session Tuesday on the graying of the nation’s workforce at the Risk & Insurance Management Society conference.

As a result of its approach, he said, the median age of employees at the plant stood in the mid-50s for years.

Another presenter, Marsh Managing Director Daniel McGarvey, noted that the average age of a U.S. worker has risen by seven years over the past three decades. By 2016, one-third of the U.S. workforce will be over 50, he said.

At the same time, older workers during the downturn reported having more trouble finding work and remained out of a job longer than their younger counterparts.

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There are a number of myths about older workers, McGarvey said, including misplaced notions that they are more likely to be injured, suffer from failing memories, are less productive, relate poorly to customers, are late to work more often due to health issues and bring outdated skills.

None of those are true, he said.

Moreover, job satisfaction among workers older than 60 is higher (67 percent vs. 44 percent) than younger workers. Loyalty also is higher among older workers, 75 percent vs. 46 percent.

One of the big advantages that older workers bring is that “they’ve learned all of the right ways to do it, all of the shortcuts,” McGarvey said.

And if their skills are outdated, “it might be the employer’s fault,” he said.

Older workers are more reliable, have higher retention rates, are more productive, more flexible on scheduling, can often serve as mentors to younger colleagues and generally bring less “drama” to the workplace, he said.

“They’ve seen everything and can handle adversity,” he said.

Employers hoping to retain older employees can make a few adjustments fairly easily to accommodate them, the presenters said.

Items to consider, they said, include proper lighting, hearing and learning styles of older workers compared to the new generations of workers.

Among the examples he offered, McGarvey said telephone headsets, rather than speaker phones, have proven especially helpful to older workers with hearing issues.

Also, mid-morning and mid-afternoon “stretch and flex” sessions have been helpful. “The older you are, the less time you should spend sitting in the same place,” he said.

Johnson said BMW has made “all sorts” of changes to account for employees’ slowly eroding physical abilities.

To start, potential hires, he said, go through a physical evaluation, essential functions testing and drug screening.

The Spartanburg plant, he said, employs an “ever-expanding” array of robotics and other mechanical assistance devices aimed at helping workers do their jobs.

BMW also subjects its work stations to a “continuous focus on ergonomic solutions,” and it schedules job rotations several times per shift, just to “keep people from wearing out,” he said.

Also, the company has a half-dozen on-site physical therapists that help address issues before they a workers’ compensation claim.

And the auto maker’s wellness program includes everything from weight management to vision services to rehabilitation support.

Another presenter, Phillip Tenenbaum, a senior partner at Mercer, said some employers rely heavily on poaching to fill their job ranks, an unsustainable strategy.

The better approach, he said, is to recognize the advantages of having older workers in the workplace, especially as more Americans expect to work in their later years.

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