You don’t have to tell Leo Feuerstein that the nation’s population is aging; he sees the trend unfurling right in front of his eyes. As operations manager and secretary-treasurer at Western Precast Concrete Inc., El Paso, Texas, Feuerstein says roughly 15% of the firm’s current workforce is 60 or older. Most have been with Western Precast for eight years or longer, although some came to the company in more recent years, seeking full-time or part-time jobs to help offset the negative effects that the economic recession has had on their checkbooks.
“Many companies aren’t interested in hiring older workers, especially on the ‘labor’ end of the workforce,” says Feuerstein. Western Precast is bucking the trend by hiring individuals with longtime, successful careers in construction and who are now back in the job market due to financial circumstances. Feuerstein says the strategy has worked out well for the company.
“We’ve found that older employees are a valuable resource,” Feuerstein explains. “These employees bring a sense of maturity to the workforce. They are committed to doing their best and giving 100% to the task.” Older workers also tend to be on time for work, usually missing little or no days during the year. “They come from an era when you were loyal to your employer,” says Feuerstein, “and Western Precast, in turn, is mandated to show loyalty to them.”
Of course, there are also challenges that come with managing an aging workforce. For one, Feuerstein says he and his team have to monitor such workers’ activities more closely, to ensure that they don’t overdo it physically or injure themselves. In some cases, the desire to “do more” comes from the inherent need to prove themselves against the firm’s younger employees.
“We have to educate them on the fact that we don’t compare or judge one employee against another,” says Feuerstein, who finds that establishing clear objectives and goals, and then asking each worker to achieve his or her own personal output milestones, tends to work well when managing older workers. “Once we have overcome the education and orientation process, we find that these employees are great performers who possess high attention to detail and quality.”
Western Precast is just one of many American manufacturers whose labor force is aging. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts that by 2014 the number of workers over 55 will grow to 20% of the labor force, up from a current 15%. And while many of these workers will be employed in the service sector, a percentage of them will be retaining their hard hats and getting down and dirty on the plant floor and out in the yard.
Demographic trends – namely, the fact that the oldest members of the 78 million-strong Baby Boomer generation turned 65 in 2011 – are playing a part in this trend, but so are economic issues that have enveloped the country for several years now. As Feuerstein pointed out, the fact that these individuals are ready, willing and able to work past the “normal” retirement age makes them good candidates for manufacturers who need to fill their ranks with experienced workers.
According to its “Embracing Boomers” research survey, furniture manufacturer Herman Miller says that the ranks of 60-year-olds are growing 1.9% a year – 60% faster than the overall world population. In fact, the global ratio of general population to the 60-and-over contingent is 9:1; the UN Population Division predicts it will be only 4:1 by 2050. In the United States in 2010, there were 36.6 million people age 55 and older in the labor force, or 15.4% of the total.
The BLS says that the number of members of the work force age 55 and up will grow by an annual rate of 3.6%, three times faster than the growth expected for the entire work force.
Some of this growth comes by choice. According to the BLS, more than one-half of older workers are continuing to work in “bridge” jobs, or those that come with no pensions or security. Meant to “fill in” where the social security or pension checks leave off, these jobs are fulfilling a real need among older workers who aren’t quite ready to hang up their coveralls just yet. The trend isn’t expected to end anytime soon, according to the BLS, which predicts that in the future, traditional retirements will be the exception rather than the rule.
Bodies are fickle. They peak in functional performance during the teens and 20s, with the decline in physiological functions rearing their ugly heads as early as 30. That decline continues into the 40s and 50s and beyond. In a 2010 Rand Corp. study, 40% of people age 50 to 64 reported difficulty performing ordinary activities of daily life.
In a study of 3,752 people age 55 or older, the following functional impairments occur most frequently: locomotion, bending, remembering, twisting, reaching, hearing, grasping and seeing. All of these activities play a role in the typical laborer’s daily activities, making the 55-plus set particularly prone to injury and other issues that stem from overwork.
“Manufacturers with aging employees are dealing with a few different challenges,” says David Parkhurst, an insurance agent with NPCA associate member Insurance and Benefits Group (www.ibgagent.com) in Sedalia, Mo. “First and foremost, in the event of injury, it will take these individuals longer to recover than it did when they were younger.”
To deal with these issues, precasters can take preventive measures such as laying out policies and procedures, paying attention to employee work levels, and letting workers know that they’re not being measured against their younger cohorts. “This is important, because once someone who is 50-60 years old gets hurt,” says Parkhurst, “he or she isn’t going to bounce back as quickly as a younger worker would.”
Precasters who take the time to recommission employees into new jobs as they get older can ward off some of the problems associated with slow “bounce backs.” Someone who does the same job successfully for 20 or 30 years, for example, will at some point no longer be able to perform the same tasks. But does that mean he’s no longer a valued employee? Hardly, says Parkhurst.
“The key is to monitor and acknowledge the progression – both mental and physical – and to constantly have a new, fresh workforce to fill the pipeline,” he explains. “Then you want to transition the older workers into jobs that aren’t as physically challenging, but that are still an important, vital part of your business.”
The insurance conundrum
The rising costs of health insurance are difficult enough to manage, but when providers raise rates annually based on the insured’s age, the situation becomes even more difficult for precasters to manage. “Health insurance is definitely one of the biggest cost areas when you’re dealing with an aging workforce,” says Parkhurst. “Smaller firms with 10 to 15 employees can be hit particularly hard by this.”
Getting employees involved in their own health care through exercise regimens, smoking cessation programs and dietary assistance can go a long way in helping those employees avoid insurance claims while staying healthy. At Western Precast, for example, Feuerstein says the company performs pre-employment physicals and drug screening as well as random drug screenings.
“We also employ proper lifting and safety standards for work performance. These activities apply to both young and older staff members alike,” says Feuerstein, who adds that older staff members typically “adjust and comply faster and more comprehensively to these requirements.”
Knowing that the aging trend isn’t going away anytime soon, and despite the challenges that come with managing an older labor force, Feuerstein says Western Precast will continue its tried-and-tested strategy of looking for qualified employees of any age. “We find that older candidates often present experience and value in ability,” says Feuerstein. “We will continue to seek out these valued members of our workforce.”