Utility Veterans Provide Valuable Experience

While millennials get tons of attention, utilities need to remember that older employees remain a valuable resource.

Generally speaking, millennials are the darlings of today’s workforce — the shiny objects in the room that seem to garner the lion’s share of attention from many an upper-management team or human resources department.

That’s all well and good, but Kip Kelly has some words of advice about an equally important though less heralded segment of the workforce: Don’t forget about older employees, a group that can still contribute greatly to achieving organizational goals.

“There’s been so much attention lavished on millennials,” says Kelly, the director of public programs at University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. “They’ve consumed all the oxygen in the room — everyone is talking about their needs and expectations in the workforce.

“But the reality is that many baby boomers will be working beyond 65 or 70 — they’re here to stay,” he continues. “As a population, we’re getting older, and that’s true of the workforce as well. Utilities can’t afford to lose sight of the fact that employees will be staying in the workforce longer, so they’ll need to accommodate this older segment, too. And the same benefits that work well for millennials might not be as attractive to older workers.”

The facts bear out Kelly’s assertion. According to some studies, up to 80 percent of baby boomers plan to work past age 65, and 85 percent say they intend to work during retirement, with nearly half of those saying they plan to work into their 70s or even 80s. The primary reasons? Either they haven’t saved enough to retire fully or they need to maintain health insurance coverage that comes via employment. Or they simply enjoy working.

Whatever the reason, though, Kelly says one thing is for certain: Too many utilities have no formal strategy to accommodate or retain older workers (generally defined as age 65 and older). “Many workers don’t want to retire, but the systems in which they work are typically built around that expectation,” he notes.

In fact, in a survey done by the Society of Human Resource Management, one-third of respondents said their organization had examined policies and practices aimed at older workers, while 20 percent said they had done so, but decided no changes were required. Worse yet, only 17 percent said they’ve actually tried to measure the resulting impact of workers age 55 and older retiring within the next six to 10 years.

Debunking some myths

Why should utilities care about retaining and engaging older workers? After all, it’s common knowledge that older employees are burned out, hate change, don’t like to learn new things, are less productive, are sick more often, lack any kind of drive to innovate and generally are an anchor on the metaphorical company boat as it strains to make progress.

Not so fast, Kelly says of the stereotypes. While there’s always a certain percentage of older workers (and younger ones, too, for that matter) that fall into some of those categories, studies have found that these stereotypes — like so many others — have no basis in fact.

If anything, studies show that older workers often are more productive because they have a better understanding of things such as their workplace, clients, workflows and processes. And they often possess more knowledge and skills, act more professional and mature and are more reliable than younger workers. Moreover, they’re less likely to leave than millennials, who frequently change jobs and exhibit less loyalty to employers.

“Some of it is just out and outright ageism,” Kelly says of the negative stereotypes. “Organizations would do themselves and their workers a service by thinking more broadly about diversity and inclusion — and that includes older workers. Typically the focus is on females or affinity groups. But they’re going to need to be more proactive (about catering more to older workers). Ageism is subtle and doesn’t get much attention, but it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. I think there’s going to be a groundswell (of age discrimination lawsuits).”

Many utilities are eager to jettison older employees because they have higher salaries and usually incur higher health care costs that drive up insurance premiums. But Kelly says that eliminating older workers to boost profits is a shortsighted and ill-advised strategy. In reality, since millennials change jobs more frequently and the cost of employee recruitment, training and turnover is so high, it often makes more sense financially to divert money and energy toward retaining older workers. In addition, why let go of the invaluable reservoirs of institutional knowledge that older workers possess?

Taking action

So what can utilities do to better accommodate and engage older workers? First things first: Find out how many employees are nearing retirement, analyze how their departure could affect operations, figure out what kind of skill deficit will result and determine what could be done to entice them to stay longer, Kelly says.

Retaining older workers will require a different employer mindset, Kelly suggests. When employees are 25 or 30 years old, they’re most likely still thinking about their career trajectories — upward mobility and learning new skills. But many older workers no longer aspire to take up residence in a corner office. Instead, they merely want to know that what they do is valuable — and valued by the company, he says.

“So companies need to think strategically about how to keep older workers engaged and happy,” he adds. “And that may not involve more money. Maybe it’s a lateral advancement that allows them to utilize their skills differently throughout the organization. Or perhaps it’s making them mentors or trainers — positions that allow them to leverage their experience … and add value in a different way.

“Mentoring gives younger employees more one-on-one, individual attention, which is what they demand,” he adds. “Moreover, the people who pass on knowledge and life experiences also receive emotional benefits. It’s almost a psychological imperative to want to pass on knowledge and establish a bit of a legacy. Older workers understand that they’re not going to live forever and that passing something on — creating a narrative about a career and what’s worked for them in the past — is hugely beneficial.”

Other things utilities could consider include:

  • Reverse mentoring, in which younger employees train older workers in, say, newer technology
  • More flexible hours — or even leaves of absence — to accommodate employees who must take care of elderly parents, spouses or siblings
  • Part-time or work-from-home arrangements
  • Retention bonuses
  • Phased-in retirements
  • Training to upgrade skills
  • Positions on advisory boards

In closing, Kelly suggests that when dealing with older workers, utilities need to look differently at their definition of what an employee is and move away from traditional expectations and policies. “Most (utilities) feel that retirement is an end point — that employees have no further contribution to make to the company,” he notes. “But most people don’t want to retire early; they want to stay engaged.”


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