Flexibility a key to retaining skilled workers

A growing group of older workers is keen to continue employment but is the workforce able to provide some flexibility to meet their needs?

Currently, one in five people aged 65-plus are in paid work, not necessarily full-time, but turning up regularly and receiving an income. 

It’s predicted these numbers will increase in coming years, up to one in three.

Senior man preforming a stocktake

“I like getting up and going to work, I like being part of something, I like being useful, I’ve got skills.

“You know what, I’m only 65, I’m not old. Don’t write us off.”

These were comments made by workers aged 50-plus in a recent survey by the Commission for Financial Capability, the CFFC.

Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell says being employed is about much more than just the money.

“If you’re going to retire at 65 and you live until 95, you haven’t earnt enough money in 40 years to pay for the 30 years.

“What blew us away [though] was that actually as important was the social connectedness and the purpose and the meaning that comes with working.”

With no enforced retirement age in New Zealand, are workplaces ready to embrace older workers?

Not according a survey of 500 organisations by the CFFC.

“There was a resounding ‘No, we’re not ready’ so there’s a disconnect.

"We’re getting that loud and clear – [Workers] feel discriminated against,” says Ms Maxwell.

Skills shortage looming

Some companies are making it their business to plan for the future with an older workforce already a reality for Vector, particularly in their gas transmission business.

“About one-third of that workforce that could actually retire within the next five to 10 years, they’re 55-plus,” says HR manager Vince Hurley.

Productive older workers' graph

“Most of them are specialists with a range of specialist engineering disciplines.

"We’ve got mechanical engineers, we’ve got mechanical technicians, what we call corrosion engineers, and we’ve got instrument and electrical technicians.

“They’re very difficult to replace, particularly our specialist engineering workforce.” 

He says initially there was wariness from older workers when the company discussed retirement plans.

“The issue for us is that most of these people have specialist skills, they’ve got a lot of experience in the business. They know it inside out. 

"You might be able to go and replace the skills but the experience you can’t.

“And that was our dilemma really.

“We were faced with the prospect of a number of these people retiring all at the same time and we would be left with a major skill and experience shortage.”

Vector put some options on the table.

“Essentially contracting after they retire for specialist project work or even mentoring training of our younger people,” says Mr Hurley.

“A number of people have availed themselves of part-time work or flexible work.”

Myth busting

Flexible working arrangements have been a key component of maintaining staff loyalty at BUPA, the country’s largest aged-care provider with around 25,000 people in care homes and retirement villages.

People Director Julia Wiegandt-Goude says 18 percent of their 4,500-strong workforce is over 55 and more than 6 percent are 65-plus.

Nurse with older couple playing cards

“We’ve always been in the business of aged care and employed people who have more of a relationship with people of that age.

"Somebody who’s more in that same demographic can relate much more easily.”

She’s also happy to bust a few myths along the way.

“Value the wisdom an older person brings to the workforce, the experience that they have but also don’t believe they’re not able to take on new technology.

“For example, we’ve had to take on board InterRAI which is electronic care planning, and even our oldest workers are actually capable of doing that.

“Our care home residents are now tweeting their grandchildren and skyping so the old myth that older people aren’t able to cope with technology is just that, it’s a myth.

“Don’t be put off by an older person, look at all the skills that they bring.”

Older workers often act as mentors.

“One of the things we like to do is pair up people who have good experience and good wisdom with some of our younger staff so that that wisdom is passed on,” says Ms Wiegandt-Goude.

“Small things such as when an older person in our care talks about remembering the clinking of the milk bottles, some of our younger staff go, ‘What do they mean by that?’ because they’ve only ever known plastic milk bottles. They’ve never known glass bottles.

“It’s bringing them into the world of the person that they’re caring for, and older workers are able to do that much more easily than younger workers can.”

Offering what workers want

BUPA is a 24/7 business so shift work is a given and that offers some flexibility.

“We’re in the business of offering different types of shifts,” says Ms Wiegandt-Goude.

“We’ve got the ability quite often to match what people’s needs are in terms of hours of work and part-time work is something that’s quite easy to manage, and reducing hours is also something we’ve done.”

The director says this then means staffing is easier to achieve. It goes both ways – there’s a high level of loyalty from workers with some staying 40 years plus.

“Look at what it is you can offer them and what they can offer you, and work on that basis.

“The more flexible you can be in employing people, the more you can really hear what they personally want and accede to those requests, the more likely you are to have an engaged workforce that wants to stay with you and is going to be loyal.

“We’re very happy to employ older people and actually purposely sit down to find people with experience.”