July 17, 2018
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Building on experience: Strategies to keep older workers in the workforce

Erin Rhoda | BDN
Erin Rhoda | BDN
Corliss Fanjoy, 63, of Dexter, has worked at Erda making artisan handbags for nearly 12 years.
By The BDN Editorial Board

It is no secret that Maine’s workforce is too small, and aging. That is all the more reason for the state and its employers to value older workers. They are here, have valuable skills and are ready to contribute.

BDN Maine Focus Editor Erin Rhoda recently wrote about businesses that were utilizing older workers to improve their workforce. One was Erda, a company that makes handcrafted handbags in Dexter. Most of the company’s workforce consists of women over 60, many who worked at shoe and textile plants in the area that have closed.

“These older workers know so much. They’re such a valuable asset. To not use them or not incorporate them into your business is a huge mistake,” company President Sue Nordman said.

From 2001 to 2010, Maine’s workforce grew by only 2,500 per year. Worse, if current population trends continue and participation in the workforce does not increase, the state will lose 20,000 people from its workforce by 2020, according to a report from the Maine Development Foundation and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

One way to counter this trend, the report says, is to keep older workers employed — or have them return to the workforce. It also calls for more employment of the disabled and cites the need to attract many more workers to the state.

If Maine can just match New Hampshire’s workforce participation rate for people 65 and older (19 percent versus Maine’s 16 percent), Maine would add 12,000 people to its workforce by 2020, the report said.

Workforce participation among seniors is increasing for a variety of reasons. With longer lifespans, many want to stay active and engaged past the traditional retirement age. Others need to continue to earn money as pensions and retiree health care disappear.

“Older workers have a lot to offer Maine employers but more must be done to help employers understand how to tap that potential,” the groups said in the report. “Older workers can benefit from jobs with flexible hours that make use of their social skills and experience. Maine employers must continue to adjust their workplaces to accommodate this talented and underutilized group.”

Erda has taken this message to heart. The company’s nine full-time, and one part-time, workers set their own hours. (They are paid an hourly wage.) For 63-year-old Corliss Fanjoy, that means she often gets to work before 6 a.m. and leaves around 2 p.m. The flexibility allows her to care for her two great-grandchildren while their mother works.

At Cianbro, the approach is different, but the interest in keeping older workers is the same. The Pittsfield company has an innovative program to identify the next generation of leaders and pair them with current leaders, some of whom may be approaching retirement age. For example, 63-year-old Alan Burton, vice president of the Cianbro companies, now works for Michael Bennett, whom he trained to take over his job.

“We’re a pretty dynamic organization, and it takes a lot of energy to do any one of these senior management jobs. I was at a point where I was ready not to be in the line of fire, so to say, and to help with keeping the organization moving forward,” Burton said last month.

Each quarter the company’s managers discuss their succession plans, who they were considering as potential replacements, and what the next generation of leaders would need to be successful.

This approach cultivates a new group of managers while keeping those with great knowledge and experience working for the company.

Companies should adopt strategies like these to retain older workers’ skills, experience and ability to propel a business’ growth. The side benefit? A boost for Maine’s economy as companies hang onto the workers they need, and those workers continue to contribute.


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