March 7, 2023

Employment Extenders: The Power of Aging Workers and How to Leverage Them

Thanks to TikTok, we have a burgeoning lexicon of newly minted workplace terms to learn. There’s Quiet Quitting, Quiet Hiring, Quiet Firing, Rage Applying, and Bare Minimum Mondays. In many ways, they all represent trends that have existed for a long time, but with new names to make them, well, trendy. Not wanting to be left out, let us introduce you to another one, which you probably won’t discover on TikTok and which isn’t grounded in toxic management behaviors, disgruntled employees, or general job dissatisfaction: Employment Extenders. Sounds cool, right? Like the previously referenced “movements,” this one isn’t that unique either. Employment extenders are essentially aging professionals or alumni who have returned to the workforce — yet experts believe they are in a “power position” with the potential to keep the economy afloat. Let’s explore the importance of senior talent and how MSPs and their staffing providers can leverage them.

Enter Employment Extenders

Writing for MoneyWise, Serah Louis explained that “while the American economy remains strained by a worker shortage, employers may need to turn to older hires — or try to retain their aging employees — to fill in the gaps.”

Louis cited a recent report by Voya Financial, a retirement, investment, and insurance company. Voya surveyed two populations of talent it considered employment extenders: retirees aged 50 or older who had decided to rejoin the workforce in different roles and employees aged 65 or older who were still on the job, with plans to continue working past retirement age. 

“Nick Bunker, a labor economist at Indeed, says the number of ‘unretirements’ (the phenomenon of retirees heading back to work) is moving toward 3% again — after peaking at 3.2% in March 2022, according to Indeed's analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data,” Louis wrote. Nearly a third of professionals aged 65 to 74 now expect to be working in 2030, compared with 27% in 2020 and 19% in 2000.

“Older workers have the institutional knowledge on how to perform in their jobs and can serve as mentors to new and younger employees,” Louis pointed out. “Employers also save on the costs of rehiring and training workers — many of whom may either lack the experience or are less likely to remain loyal to just one company.”

What makes the situation more interesting is that young workers today seem to lack proficiency in foundational digital skills. Hard data collected by the National Skills Coalition indicate that one in three workers struggle with “tasks that require the use of both generic and specific technology applications. For example, a person might not be able to complete a task involving the use of a new type of online form, and the need to navigate across multiple pages and applications to answer the test question. This task may have multiple steps, and may require the use of tools (such as the ‘sort’ function) to solve the problem. The person may have to identify the goal themselves, and engage in higher-level reasoning to solve the problem.”

The report found that “38 percent of workers with no digital skills have jobs that require either moderate or complex computer skills. An even higher percentage of workers with limited skills (43 percent) are employed in jobs that require moderate or complex computer usage.” Conversely, analysts are realizing that older workers have remained up-to-date and added new skills to their repertoire to compete with younger talent. 

Tapping into the wealth of expertise and knowledge accumulated by senior professionals extends far beyond filling existing employment gaps. These workers can prove instrumental in succession planning, mentoring, developing a world-class staff, and staving off the turmoil that comes with “brain drain” in an employment culture of job hopping and vocational transience. 

Succession Planning and Mentoring

In the summer of 2021, the departure of Charlie Bell, one of the original masterminds behind Amazon Web Services (AWS), sent shockwaves throughout the organization, leaving many worried about “brain drain” and how it would impact the ongoing growth of a $59 million platform. Amazon’s biggest cloud rival, Microsoft, ended up the beneficiary of Bell’s expertise. 

However, the lesson here isn’t one of keeping top talent away from competitors. It’s about the loss of deep institutional knowledge. Leaders come and go. For some businesses, where the roles are more agnostic or the skills more transferrable, not much of a vacuum forms. In a situation like this, a core solution for a business has lost its “mind,” so to speak. Bell was beyond instrumental in pioneering a complex offering for complex clients. He oversaw and managed its teams until he resigned. He fueled its evolution. He was simultaneously navigator, engineer, and captain.

Stanching Brain Drain

Succession planning is a term we use a lot, but in practice it seems to take place only when a leader has telegraphed his or her intention to depart at some future date. The reality is that companies should always be in succession planning mode. People get promoted. People resign. People retire. People get poached. People die. Who replaces them? Not every exit is planned or anticipated. A business’ c-suite tends to become reactive when these losses manifest. They ask themselves why it happened, what could they have done differently, and how will they fill the void? I believe few of these questions need to be pondered if a more proactive approach exists across the enterprise.

Knowledge transfer should be an iterative, ongoing, and routine aspect of everyday business. Yet it does require fostering a business culture that embraces and champions effective, continuous learning to prevent the loss of one employee from triggering an abrupt shutdown of wider operations.

Employment Extenders in the Nuclear Power Industry: a Creative Solution

Between 1997 and 2004, nuclear power plant staffing witnessed a steady decrease of 20%. Retirement of senior engineering staff at nuclear generating facilities created a massive and complex set of challenges for the operators:

  • An enormous loss of intellectual capital, experience, and skills 
  • The lack of a systematic and effective way to promote knowledge capture and sharing to counter this loss 
  • A threat to the integrity of safety, teamwork, and excellence

Around 2008, when the managers of the Engineering Department at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station conducted a review of their future workforce data, they discovered that a disconcerting rate of retirement by senior engineers was set to occur. They also discovered that no beginning or middle level engineers at the Station existed—and that no experienced or prepared nuclear engineers could be found in the candidate pipeline. The immediate concern was to find ways to replace the knowledge and experience of departing senior engineers to retain Palo Verde's levels of productivity, safety, and electrical output for customers.

Without mentoring and education programs, a new crop of nuclear engineers couldn’t be sown. The following solutions were presented, leveraging the capabilities of senior and alumni staff.

  • A three-year job rotation Project to expose all new hires to the full range of work areas at the Station so every new engineer would see what they do as a part of the total system, and to train these persons to the skill level of Engineer II, as independent functioning nuclear engineers. 
  • Assignment of a New Hire Section Manager to oversee the development processes and supervise the new hires during the three-year rotation before they are assigned a specific job at the Station. 
  • A Technical Mentor to support and guide each new hire’s skills development during specific job assignments in each part of the rotation sequence. 
  • A Career Mentor to support and guide each new hire’s professional development during the entire three-year process.
  • Development of software support for the company's knowledge capture and sharing initiative. 
  • Guidance (by career mentors) for self-assessment by protégés of strengths and preferences for the work areas during rotations, and development of individual career goals.
  • Long-term planning of staffing levels, specific job needs, transfers, and succession. 
  • Matching of protégé job preferences, strengths, and career goals with job opportunities within the company. 

Even today, these ideas hold a lot of merit, and they could be repurposed and applied to all levels of seniority as a living knowledge transfer practice. 

Reinvesting in Alumni as an Investment in Future Growth

​​In a 2016 article for the Wall Street Journal, Lindsay Gellman profiled how big consulting firms like McKinsey and EY keep tabs of former workers as potential talent pools, as well as a sources of new business leads, partnership opportunities, and candidate referrals. Seven years later, businesses are facing pressures and challenges that senior talent can help them overcome.

At McKinsey, where many junior employees cut out after a couple of years, the company stays in contact with tens of thousands of former consultants through online webinars and in-person networking events. The company also gives former workers an incentive to stay connected by offering them access to firm research. There are tremendous advantages to forging strong bonds with alumni talent.

  • Alumni serve as powerful brand ambassadors.
  • Former employees can bring in new business or pave the way for developing partnerships.
  • Companies like Nielsen tap into alumni talent networks for knowledge transfer, leadership training, and mentorship programs.
  • Highly skilled alumni can be deployed as contractors to tackle mission-critical projects. They already understand the business, the company culture, the clientele, and the work.

MSPs and Staffing Providers Can Play a Pivotal Role

The increased demand for skilled or experienced talent has also created opportunities for staffing industry technology providers to transcend the limitations of ATS or VMS systems and create thriving marketplace ecosystems. New generations of online hiring platforms emphasize a more robust recruitment process that incorporates ad campaigns, candidate experience, relationship management and social networks, with specific functionality for employment extenders — tracking rehire eligibility, creating virtual benches of qualified candidates, and more.

Forward-thinking MSPs and staffing companies have invested in these sourcing innovations and platforms. They also know the audience. For example, older professionals may feel uncomfortable posting personal information on Pinterest, Instagram, or TikTok. To locate talent of this caliber and experience, recruiters can find greater success by utilizing professional networks such as LinkedIn, alumni forums, professional associations, directories, and social media like YouTube and Facebook, using their datasets to develop engagement systems for former workers.

Pew research found that YouTube and Facebook had large audiences of older users:

  • YouTube used by 70% of those 50 to 64, and 38% of those 65 and older. 
  • Facebook used by 68% of those 50 to 64, and 46% of those 65 and older. 

Utilizing an Alumni Talent Network

When re-engaging former employees as contractors or other types of indirect labor, clients must be cognizant of issues related to IRS employment classification, benefits, Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) laws, breaks-in-service and tenure policies, fair employment standards such as Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA), and intellectual property considerations; alumni brought in as contingent talent may be supporting other clients, even direct industry competitors. Many MSPs and staffing providers have specific expertise in these classification and compliance issues, which can significantly mitigate exposure to the risks or potential liabilities associated with rehiring former workers as contractors.

Some agencies have created worker classification and/or alumni sourcing teams that help transition returning employees back to their previous companies as qualified and compliant contingent talent: agency temps, SOW contractors, freelancers, and independent contractors.

By outsourcing an alumni program to an experienced MSP or staffing provider, clients can capture economies of scale and industry best practices, measured and managed against defined benchmarks and metrics. Outsourcing also offsets the overhead associated with internal build-outs, becoming one of least expensive ways to leverage alumni into future business results.

Extending More Opportunities to Employment Extenders

Senior professionals and returning retirees can serve as dynamic resources for companies looking to maintain a virtual bench of passive and immediately deployable talent. These vital employment extenders can be engaged as technical mentors for niche skills that universities can’t or don’t support. They are also excellent ambassadors for promoting an organization’s brand and attracting new talent. By developing a robust and formalized alumni program, companies will give themselves a competitive edge on attracting talent, filling critical gaps, and ensuring the ongoing legacy of the organization.

Photo by Lucian Alexe on Unsplash

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