Retirees elusive but helpful to labor-starved marketplace

David Fettig | Managing Editor

Published June 1, 1989  | June 1989 issue

While older adults are seen as an important source of labor in the coming decade, some officials remain skeptical that retirees are a real answer to the nation's shrinking labor supply. Even so, one major Minneapolis employer has recently tapped into the older adult labor pool with successful early results.

"Older adults" or "retirees" are the terms of choice these days when referring to workers who are at or beyond typical retirement age, according to Rick Devich, director of the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program of Greater Minneapolis. "'Seniors' is on the way out," he said.

Older adults, then, are on the way in—into fast-food restaurants, gas stations, retail stores and offices that in the past have been the mainstay of younger workers.

Marketplace has special needs

Devich said there are two basic needs at work, resulting in more older adults returning to the job market: the needs of retirees to survive financially and to balance leisure time with "productive" work, and the need of the marketplace for more workers.

And it is the marketplace that has made it possible for older adults to reenter the work force, he said.

"Retirees have specialized human capital skills that you just can't buy on the street," said Jim Beaton, program director for the Employment Education Service in the University of Minnesota's Industrial Relations Department.

Considering the service industries' growing need for workers, one of the pertinent questions is: Do older adults want to do that type of work; do they want to, for example, flip burgers? Devich doesn't think so—unless they must out of necessity. He also said that the somewhat romanticized notion of older adults serving burgers with a smile is also tempered with the reality of efficiency ratings and possible slower performance.

One company that is definitely feeling a labor pinch is Valleyfair Family Amusement Park in Shakopee, Minn. Likewise, according to General Services Manager Kevin Magyar, the Twin Cities-area theme park is in the market for older adult workers.

"We need them, we don't get a lot of applications and we are looking," Magyar said in response to questions about older workers.

However, Magyar, who has attended job fairs in hopes of luring older adults to Valleyfair, said he doubts if enough retirees need or want to work in order for their numbers, in the aggregate, to significantly increase the labor supply.

"The senior citizens market is really overblown," Magyar said.

Retirees should work in familiar positions

Beaton, whose program includes a class on hiring and working with older adults, said that although retirees are effective employees, they should be rehired into their previous professions where they have obvious skills.

"The best simple source of employment is where they (older adults) have worked before," Beaton said. However, he said, one of the main obstacles for continued employment of retired-age adults are the current pension and social security laws. Those laws need to be liberalized to encourage fuller participation by older adults, according to Beaton.

One Minneapolis company, Norwest Technical Services, a division of Norwest Corp., has gone after older adults in a rather big way. In early April the firm placed an ad in the Twin Cities' Star Tribune newspaper, specifically targeting older adults.

Announcing a "Golden Opportunity for Active Seniors," the ad offered $6/hour for three eight-hour days at the beginning of each month. As of mid-May, 20 of 25 slots had been filled—most with older adults.

The ad was placed by Norwest Human Resources Specialist John Wilinski, who raised eyebrows in his department by putting the ad in the lifestyle section of the newspaper. Older adults are not likely to spend time looking through the small print of the classified section, Wilinski reasoned.

Apparently, he was right. Wilinski received 45 responses from the ad, and so far the new employees have worked out fine, he said.

"We recognize the shrinking labor supply," Wilinski said. "We have to shift our thinking to hiring non-traditional employees."

Those non-traditional employees not only include older adults, but those on the opposite end of the spectrum—young people. Specifically, young people who did not graduate from high school. With the pool of high school grads shrinking, Wilinski said Norwest Technical Services (NTS) is considering initiating programs whereby employees will be able to work toward earning a general equivalency degree (G.E.D.). Such plans are about one to two years down the road, Wilinski said, but they address the sense of urgency growing in large corporations.

Team analyzes labor market

Wilinski is part of a three-person team at NTS doing long-term research into the company's labor needs. He said the team is investigating all options when it comes to recruiting and hiring workers, from how it advertises, to how employees are transported to work, to the benefits and schedules of those employees.

But before any new programs begin, Wilinski said he will continue to tap the older adult market. He said he has no choice: When managers call the human resources department they expect applicants to be available; and lately, that hasn't always been the case.

Too many hopes, however, should not be pinned on the older adult population, officials say. For, while retirees are essentially an untapped resource, their availability is largely dependent on their desire to work and on a declining population in coming years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between now and the year 2000 the age group 55 and older will decrease by 1.5 percent, with the greatest declines coming in the first five years of the next decade.