Beating the Baby Boomer Brain Drain
by Selena Rezvani, M.S. and Shelley A. Kirkpatrick, Ph.D.

With all the talk of baby boomers’ mass exodus from the workplace, there is far more commentary on the problem than there are potential solutions. Considerable debate exists over whether labor shortages will occur as baby boomers — people born in the post-World War II period from 1946 to 1964 — begin to retire (see Box 1). 

Regardless of which side prevails, you should consider and plan for the possibility that you may face a skill or labor shortage at some point in the future.  You could be impacted by the retirement of baby boomers, or you may be affected simply by fluctuations in the labor pool for specific skills.

We share several strategies that you can use to mitigate the impact of aging baby boomers leaving the workplace.

Box 1: The Debate Over Labor Shortages
 
Evidence for labor shortages   Evidence against labor shortages
     

Baby boomers are beginning to retire.  They range in age from 43 to 61 and comprise about 28% of the U.S. population.

Reduced immigration since 9/11.

An increasing rate of job creation, but a decreasing number of workforce entrants.

Earlier retirement ages (although this trend has slowed in recent years).

More women, including those with advanced academic degrees, choosing to exit the workforce when they have children.

 

More college graduates. Colleges did not cut back on class sizes when the “baby bust” generation went through school.

Rising retirement age. Older workers remain healthy and intellectually curious. They also need to keep working to qualify for higher social security payments.

Increasing use of “off-shoring,” or transferring work to other countries, and outsourcing.

Supply and demand system will respond. Shortages will lead to increasing wages, which will coax retirees out of retirement, influence college students dropping out, women to re-enter the workforce, and companies to respond with innovative programs to retain workers.

Plan for smooth transitions

The best-prepared companies are those that have undertaken a comprehensive planning strategy in order to stay resilient and competitive.  They understand how critical an integrated planning process is and unite top leadership with Human Resources, Information Technology, Operations and Knowledge Development staff in workforce planning.  Perhaps the greatest key to forward-thinking companies’ success is that they use a variety of methods to capture employee knowledge given that no single solution exists.  Such a multi-pronged approach to knowledge management creates more repositories of occupational information and allows for smoother transitions in the event of employee turnover.

Studies show that baby boomers are under-prepared for retirement particularly with regard to finances and long-term care planning.  When combined with longer life expectancy rates and a desire to stay active and engaged, we can expect that many baby boomers will re-enter the labor market after their initial retirement.  The most proactive companies anticipate the murky waters ahead by finding ways to retain their baby boomer employees or by re-engaging them after they have retired. 
 
Assess your workforce

Through the use of competency assessments, organizations can uncover critical information about their workforce’s knowledge, skills, and other factors that lead to high performance. The process of competency modeling allows an organization to first learn what competencies employees possess and helps determine the “spread” of seasoned versus inexperienced employees.

Competency models operate under the premise that organizations need to measure a baseline of knowledge before they are able to take meaningful action to improve.  Once competency is measured, both gaps and concentrations of abilities can be exposed.  Competency models not only play a significant role in helping manage the departure of employees — but in the case of Hewlett Packard, they are also a critical factor in improving the overall quality and performance of existing teams.

Learn to share

Encouraging employee-to-employee learning through formal job shadowing or job sharing programs can improve the skill base of junior employees and facilitate the dispersing of knowledge throughout the organization.  Through job shadowing, employees learn about a job by observing the typical work responsibilities of a high performing coworker.

The job shadowing experience provides temporary, but meaningful exposure to a workplace function, and teaches junior or more inexperienced employees firsthand about applying skills to their jobs.  A job shadowing approach can be especially effective in transferring knowledge and skill to a future job incumbent when an organization is aware that a seasoned worker is nearing retirement. 

Job sharing — splitting a job that is typically performed by one person into one that is performed by two — mitigates the risk of lost knowledge by ensuring no one person performs a key function in an organization.  Pharmaceutical manufacturer Abbott, for example, encourages job-sharing and part-time options when staffers want a change from working full-time, and they provide the necessary support through equipment and remote access to work from home.  

Job sharing disseminates knowledge throughout an organization, and presents a viable work arrangement for a baby boomer who has retired from full-time work but who is not yet ready to stop working.  A part-time work arrangement allows the baby boomer to contribute decades of experience without the demands of a 40-hour (or more) per week commitment.

Beef up your benefits

Consider focusing some of your employee benefits on holistic retirement preparedness, demonstrating your attunement to your baby boomer population and their unique needs.  Flexible work arrangements, telecommuting, partial pensions, and consultant or corporate training engagements are great places to start.

Many organizations are offering a wider range of options in their benefit and compensation plans.  Not only do younger and older workers have different needs, they also have different perspectives and risk tolerances.  Stock options, bonuses and commissions, and 401(k) contributions, as well as traditional medical and dental benefits, may need to be tailored to meet the needs of different generations.

Before tailoring workplace benefits, knowledge of employee demographics — particularly age — is critical to collect.  Surprisingly, 58% of employers report their workplaces have analyzed the demographics of their workforces either ‘not at all’ or to a ‘limited extent’ as a way to get ready for the changing age demographics of their workforces, according to Boston College’s Center on Aging & Work.

Gone but not forgotten

Some companies have stayed ahead of the curve by creating alumni networks to tap into employees’ knowledge after they have voluntarily left the organization.  Boston Consulting Group and Booz Allen Hamilton both designed innovative programs to stay connected to their alumni workers, either through surveys, networking events or online portals. 

Many such companies realize that retirees have vital insights into their former companies.  Re-engaging this group provides an opportunity to bring them back to the workplace on a project or consulting basis, again, an appealing option for retired baby boomers looking for added income without a long-term commitment.

Final thoughts

An integrated, open corporate culture will fare more successfully in succession planning than companies with distinctly detached divisions or departments.  As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, is famous for pointing out, cultures that allow the hoarding of information, or perceive information as power, will inevitably stifle innovation, learning and the dissemination of knowledge around the organization.  “Closed” companies have a much harder time recovering from voluntary turnover than companies that are better integrated.  Sharing knowledge through intranets, web portals, in person forums and even by creating more collaborative physical workspace arrangements can make a difference.

At the end of the day, you must be able to attract and retain the workers — including baby boomers, minorities, working parents and workers with high-demand skills — needed to carry out your critical business functions.  

References:

Johnson, J., Kane, K., Matz, C., Shen, C., Smyer, M. and Pitt-Catsouphes, M.  (2007).  The Boston College National Study of Business Strategy and Workforce Development.  The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.  Retrieved August 30, 2007 from http://agingandwork.bc.edu/template_index

LaRocca, M. (2007) Career and Competency Pathing: The Competency Modeling Approach.  San Diego State University College of Education EdWeb.  Retrieved August 30, 2007 from http://edweb.sdsu.edu/people/ARossett/pie/Interventions/career_1.htm

Welch, J. and Welch, S.  (2005) Winning, New York:  Harper Collins.

Alumni (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2007 from http://www.boozallen.com/alumni

BCG Alumni Network (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2007 from https://www.bcg.com/bcgnetworks/alumni/alumni_login.jsp

Retirement Decisions: Federal Policies Offer Mixed Signals about When to Retire. (2007). U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO-07-753). Retrieved August 30, 2007 from http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrept?GAO-07-753

The 2006 Working Mother 100 Best Companies (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2007 from http://www.workingmother.com/web?service=direct/1/ViewTopListingPage/dlinkEntireListAllText&sp=77


Selena Rezvani is an Assessment Consultant for Management Concepts (www.managementconcepts.com), a professional services company that specializes in training, publishing and consulting, and is located in Vienna, Virginia.  Ms. Rezvani has guided numerous clients through the process of assessing their workplaces and identifying strategies for transformation. She is experienced in consulting with Fortune 500 clients as well as non-profit organizations across many industries.  Her work currently focuses on competency modeling, maturity modeling, customized survey assessments, and organizational change.  Ms. Rezvani received her master’s degree in clinical social work from New York University, and is currently completing her MBA at Johns Hopkins University.

Shelley A. Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., is the Director of Assessment Services for Management Concepts (www.managementconcepts.com), a professional services company that specializes in training, publishing and consulting, and is located in Vienna, Virginia. She has over 15 years of experience in developing individual and organizational assessments for the private sector as well as national security and defense organizations.  A former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and The American University, Dr. Kirkpatrick has authored numerous articles on leadership, motivation, and corporate espionage that have appeared in academic journals as well as practitioner-based publications.

Many more articles in Motivation & Retention in The CEO Refresher Archives

     
   
   


Copyright 2007 by
Selena Rezvani and Shelley A. Kirkpatrick. All rights reserved.

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