For many older Maine workers retirement is not an option

Posted Feb. 11, 2011, at 2:53 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 14, 2011, at 2:34 p.m.
John McPeek, 58, and Mary Jane MacKenzie, 62, both work at the Broadway McDonald's in Bangor and are part of a group of older workers that continue to work into their retirement years. McPeek, a two-year employee, works the grill and McKenzie has been the resturant's hostess for the past 14 years.
John McPeek, 58, and Mary Jane MacKenzie, 62, both work at the Broadway McDonald's in Bangor and are part of a group of older workers that continue to work into their retirement years. McPeek, a two-year employee, works the grill and McKenzie has been the resturant's hostess for the past 14 years.
Carol Ouellette answers calls at the front desk of Cianbro Corp. in Pittsfield. Ouellette, 67, has been working for Cianbro for 23 years.
Carol Ouellette answers calls at the front desk of Cianbro Corp. in Pittsfield. Ouellette, 67, has been working for Cianbro for 23 years.
Maine's workers by the numbers
Eric Zelz | BDN
Maine's workers by the numbers

Today's poll

Can you afford to retire?

Yes
No

The state’s rapidly aging work force is posing serious challenges — as well as opportunities — for employers as they confront a steep decline in the number of younger Mainers ready to punch the clock.

Meanwhile, older workers — experienced and healthier than ever — are facing their own challenges in the midst of a sagging economy. They have in increasing numbers decided to delay retirement in favor of a steady paycheck.

“The money mostly is why I still work,” said 67-year-old Carol Ouellette, who for 22 years has been a human resources assistant at Cianbro Corp., a Pittsfield-based construction company. “I have some savings, but not a lot. I have mortgages, kids, grandkids, and bills.”

Over the last decade, the percentage of Mainers over 55 in the work force rose nearly twice as fast as the percentage of Mainers this age in the general population, according to a recent Maine Department of Labor study.

About 40 percent of those workers age 62 and over say they are delaying retirement because of the poor economy, according to a 2009 PEW Research national survey. That same survey finds that 63 percent of workers 50 to 61 expect to push back their retirements for financial reasons.

But the economy isn’t the only factor, the survey finds. Many Americans are living healthier longer and simply do not want to stop working.

Ouellette, who has scaled back her schedule to three days a week, could be counted among that group, as well.

“As long as I’m happy and feel great, I’m happy doing this,” said Ouellette, who loves the “great atmosphere” at Cianbro and plans on working there until she’s at least 70.

If projections hold true, more than one-quarter of workers will be over 55 years old by 2018, according to a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Employers and state officials are taking note of the trend, which is attributed largely to lower birth rates, longer life expectancies and the aging of baby boomers.

“This is an issue we’re paying lots of attention to, and one of the alarms we’re sounding is how Maine’s work force is aging,” said John Dorrer, the outgoing Maine Department of Labor division director. “We’re not a very diverse state, and we’re not getting any younger.”

Maine already has the distinction of being the state with the oldest median age in the country, and in the eight-year period studied by the Maine Department of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau figures show that the number of workers under the age of 45 declined 23 percent. Meanwhile, the number of workers age 55 and over jumped 55 percent.

In real numbers, older workers made up just 13.5 percent of the work force in 2001. In 2009, that number was 21 percent.

The news and the numbers are not surprising to most of the state’s large employers and Maine Labor Department officials, but it is of particular concern because the trend might leave employers with a significant skilled labor shortage in the near future.

“The younger workers coming along in the pipeline are less, and that means we’ll have a major gap in this state as far as a knowledgeable work force,” said James Breece, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Maine System. “Not just skills, but also general knowledge.

“Our real fear is if we don’t fill that gap, the state will run out of gas as far as a work force to draw upon, forcing it to go outside Maine to find skilled workers, or go out of business,” he said. “Before now, it was seen as a need. Now it’s an imperative.”

Even with current poor economic conditions, many employers will face labor supply issues in the future.

“Because Maine’s an aging work force, it exacerbates the problem with outmigration,” said Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine. “We’ve got a little bit of a problem in particular in that manufacturing isn’t looked at as a viable career choice with young people.”

The Maine paper industry is a case in point. In 2001, 15 percent of its workers were 55 or older. Eight years later, the number jumped to 29 percent, with some paper company officials predicting the number could reach 40 percent by 2017.

While the health care and retail sectors have the largest numbers of older workers, the trend is not limited to the private sector.

“We’re seeing it in private business, industry, utilities and government,” said Peter Vigue, Cianbro’s chairman and CEO. “It’ll be a real challenge in this state going forward, even in state government.

“It doesn’t attract a younger generation,” Vigue continued. “And when many state employees retire who have a lot of expertise in certain areas, they are allowed to come back as consultants and get paid via retirement, health benefits and consulting fees. That costs the state even more than if they were still full-time employees.”

Breece, who is also an economist and economics professor at UMaine, says the recent report isn’t all bad news, but it is something he believes Maine politicians cannot take lightly. He also sees potential for businesses to make that increase in older workers work in their favor.

“I think quite honestly what Maine is facing is so severe, we need to work on all aspects of the issue,” Breece said. “For example, when older workers retire, it shouldn’t mean they just disappear. We need to create more flexible hours and make more part-time hours and shifts to accommodate older workers and take advantage of their numbers, experience and knowledge.”

More mature hiring approach

While the advancing age of Maine’s work force is a concern for every in-state business owner, some have already started modifying their hiring approaches to capitalize on an expanding older work force while also addressing a shortage of younger workers.

“The average age of workers in [the manufacturing] industry is 54 and that is frightening, especially to employers, so companies are getting creative,” said Martin.

Some of those companies have been honored for their creativity. L.L. Bean,Hollywood SlotsCianbro Corp., Merrill Bank, and the University of Mainewere recently honored as senior-friendly employers by the Maine Jobs Council’s Older Workers Committee with its fourth annual Silver Collar Awards.

Business owners have reacted to the changing work force dynamics in Maine by creating flexible schedules and even new positions.

“Something we’ve had to do here is allow flexibility for people to work at home, and that’s something many other businesses are looking at too,” said Noelle Merrill, executive director of Eastern Area Agency on Aging in Bangor.

Many businesses have discovered the benefits outweigh the limitations when it comes to hiring or retaining older and retirement-age workers.

“A lot of town offices hire older workers because they are experienced and don’t mind jobs that may not be full-time,” said Merrill.

Bangor’s Gary Eckmann, who owns seven McDonald’s franchises in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, has hired dozens of older workers.

“A lot of what we need in our business is part-time help and folks who want to work just a few hours a day,” Eckmann said. “That works for us being able to cover the peak meal hours and gives them some supplemental income.”

Eckmann said he finds seniors to be good, dependable and diligent employees, and there is little conflict due to generation gaps or competition for hours.

“Many things seniors bring to the table are of value,” said 66-year-old Brewer resident Rick Honold, who is working part-time as a customer service representative for L.L. Bean in Bangor. “We offer work ethic, knowledge, reliability and a wealth of experience.”

And to attract workers with those attributes, businesses are getting creative.

“We offer flex time, part-time, or nontraditional scheduling with shortened work weeks and periodic time off,” said Mike Bennett, Cianbro’s vice president of human resources. “You have to understand what the people need and what the organization needs too. If it’s flex time, OK. If it’s benefits that someone needs to make a job provide what they need for their family, OK. Sometimes it’s even working certain hours or certain days or even certain months for full- and part-time employees.”

Vigue, Bennett, Eckmann and others say another plus to hiring or keeping older workers is their ability to mentor younger, less experienced workers, from entry-level positions all the way up to upper management. This helps address the shortage of qualified or skilled younger workers.

“[The Verso mill in Jay] wants to make sure they have qualified paper makers around to fill jobs as older, experienced workers retire,” Dorrer said. “That’s a hard thing to do in the time that we’re in. There’s not a lot of redundancy these days where you have two or three people in house waiting to fill skilled positions.”

Eckmann has realized other benefits to having senior workers.

“They’re extremely conscientious about work and just a joy to have around,” he said. “One thing I like a lot is when you have a teen working and they work side by side with someone who’s retired it’s quite a dynamic, and I think that approach or work ethic rubs off on the younger workers.”

Working past retirement age

There are many reasons seniors choose to keep working past their retirement ages.

For some, they have to because stock market busts in recent years cost them their retirement savings. For others, it’s a way to supplement their Social Security benefits.

For others, like Honold, who is a retired Internal Revenue Service agent, reasons are varied.

“I was retired about a little over a year and it got to be the fall and I decided it would be nice to make a little extra money,” said the father of three daughters with his wife, Alice. “Money wasn’t my primary consideration, though. I did it just to do something and get out of the house.

“I thought it would just be a seasonal position and then that would be the end of it, but here I am still at it five years later,” Honold said of his stint at L.L. Bean.

“I like the flexibility of the hours. I’m able to pick up extra time if I want to work more, but if you need the day off, you can also give your day away,” he said. “I also like the working conditions and the people.”

Rosemarie Hahn works a short shift as a secretary each weekday — 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. — at Eastern Area Agency on Aging. It’s a tough sell for someone wanting 30-40 hours a week, but it’s a good fit for her.

“It’s not perfect because of the shift being right in the middle of the day, but it’s just enough,” said the 68-year-old Stetson resident. “It’s not a job I have to take home with me, and it gets me out of the house.”

Hahn’s reasons for working are similar to those of Mary Jane MacKenzie, a 62-year-old Hampden native who switched from full-time to part-time with McDonald’s two years ago.

“I took early retirement and went from 40 hours a week then to 18 to 20 hours a week now,” said MacKenzie, known better as “MJ” to customers and co-workers. “Money is the primary reason. You can always use extra money, but I also like getting out and interacting with my co-workers and customers.”

MacKenzie, who has worked at Broadway McDonald’s for 14 years, serves as a hostess and also runs a craft night for children from 4 to 7 p.m. every Tuesday.

“I was first hired to work in the play place as birthday party coordinator, and we used to have a story time Tuesday afternoons,” said MacKenzie, who has 15 grandchildren. “Gary has been really great to me, and I love my customers.”

Back in Pittsfield, Ouellette also sells antiques and collectibles with her husband as part of a home business. She plans to make it her full-time vocation, but not until she’s done at Cianbro, where she handles data and word processing, switchboard operations, and employee records, and has mentored a few younger employees as well.

“I could totally retire if I wanted to just live and get by,” she said. “But we have retirement plans and things we want to do, so it’s that, but I do really like my work too.”

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