As they leave health care organizations, financial services companies, manufacturing plants and utilities, retiring baby boomers are making space for a new generation of employees to make their mark.
OLDER BABY BOOMERS BEGANtheir careers when company loyalty, service longevity and guaranteed pensions were commonplace. Now many of these employees are retiring in large numbers, leaving area employers striving for ways to replace their expertise while still maintaining productivity and pro tability. Just as retirees are embarking on a new era of reinvention, so, too, are businesses across all industries as they compete for employees to join their ranks.
AN EMPLOYMENT AGENCY EXECUTIVE’S PERSPECTIVE
Paul Bossert, vice president of Premier Employment Solutions, works with a variety of companies to fill everything from entry-level to executive positions. In some cases, businesses haven’t been able to fast-track younger employees into leadership roles quickly enough to accommodate the wave of retirements, so hiring contract labor and/or putting previous employees on the payroll may be used to bridge gaps until permanent replacements can be hired.
Along with traditional job posting avenues, companies are using LinkedIn, Facebook and Craig’s List and establishing employee referral programs, says Bossert.
“If you find good people and good workers, they tend to hang out with other good people and good workers,” Bossert said.
Because the retirement wave is so pervasive and the possible pool of Generation X and Millennial workers is so much smaller, employers are becoming more creative in not only how they entice workers to replace retirees, but also how they try to accommodate and keep them.
“We have a lot of talented people in Topeka, but we also have a lot of openings,” Bossert said. “A few companies are raising wages, increasing health care contributions and, in some cases, reducing qualifications to get people in the door.”
Whereas pensions and workday predictability appealed to many baby boomers, a younger workforce is more likely to be wooed by work/life balance, exibility, a family friendly culture and even access to social media.
"As employers, we have to address the ways in which younger generations communicate and digest information through social media and electronic devices.”
A SUPERINTENDENT’S STRATEGY
Although companies may be searching for experienced mid-level employees to ll expertise gaps as retirees leave, Topeka Public Schools is facilitating programs and partnerships to prepare its graduates to fill vacancies too, including o ering expanded honors and college-level courses aligned with career pathways.
“I envision that all students will have access to 30-60 college hours, an associate’s degree and industry credentials while in high school,” said Tiffany Anderson, Ph.D, superintendent of Topeka Public Schools.
She cites a current collaboration with Washburn Tech that equips students with an opportunity to obtain a CNA license, journeyman’s license and OSHA training. The new Topeka West High School coffee bar also gives students hands-on barista and bookkeeping experience.
Anderson says the new Topeka Center for Advanced Learning and Careers (TCALC), opening in 2018, will introduce even more options for students and employers. The innovative high school program, created in partnership with business and industry, will feature: Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing; Bioscience and Biomedical; Business; and Human Services. Students will build knowledge and benefit from professional mentors in their field of interest.
“Through TCALC, students have 18 pathways they can explore while in high school, which gives them the skills and training they need to move into a career or college,” she said. “Additionally, we have a robotics lab at Highland Park High School, which trains students on the same robotic equipment that many of our manufacturing plants, such as Frito- Lay, use here in Topeka.”
This year, Topeka Public Schools aligned courses with ACT assessment criteria, started a new mentorship program that pairs high school students with alumni mentors, began a high school senior mentoring program through which central office staff help a student move through college, added monthly college campus visits and hired a college and career advocate.
“As a result of the close monitoring, wrap-around supports and expanding access and opportunities, I anticipate the graduation rate at our large high schools will increase, and all students graduating will have a post-secondary plan,” she said.
A UTILITY COMPANY’S CREATIVE COURSE
Westar Energy underwent its first retirement wave about six years ago and began preparing to replace its aging workforce in earnest after assessing the impact of potential employee retirements 10 years out. With its retirement wave now cresting, the company averages 100 retirements a year, 5 percent of its workforce.
“We looked at our core values and knew we needed to hold true to those, but we also added one, adaptability, to make sure we could keep up with changes in the industry,” said Jerl Banning, senior vice president operations support and administration. “Replacing baby boomers’ knowledge is critical, and sometimes that knowledge may have just existed in someone’s head. Offering Lean Six Sigma training to streamline processes and increase documentation helps the employees who replace our retirees access that information more quickly.”
The utility’s multifaceted employment functions and specialized skill sets spurred the company’s human resources team to expand its partnerships with organizations to further support its pipeline.
We had to be intentional about building a broader, diverse talent pool to represent our communities as we filled gaps,” said Steve Boyce, executive director, human resources. “Our job as human resources professionals is to attract the best and brightest people for our communities and work with those individuals to help them achieve their dreams.”
To that end, Westar expanded its long-standing collaborations with Emporia Flint Hills Technical College and universities in the state’s regents system to include new relationships with Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, and Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, two historically black colleges. The company also intensified its affiliation with Topeka Public Schools by creating the Westar Energy Education Station to complement STEM curriculum for students in all grades and offering leadership development opportunities to instructors.
Kim Konecny, supervisor, employment, oversees a successful college internship program that’s been recognized three times in Internships for Quality of Life by vault.com. Participants have meaningful work assignments, take tours across the service territory, interact with a mentor and enjoy social activities with other interns.
“We had 60 interns last year, half engineers and half other disciplines,” she said. “We’re looking for a good mutual fit, and if we see those relationships emerge at the end of the summer, we extend an offer.”
Even when interns opt to go elsewhere, Konecny says the internship program creates positive connections, so participants who want to come back to the community often call to express interest in returning to Westar.
But the university track is just part of Westar’s employment equation. Skilled crafts professionals are essential. The complexity of safely generating, delivering and restoring power requires not only competence and commitment in an office or power plant setting, but also a considerable amount of courage and confidence to climb a pole in inclement weather.
Westar offers week-long, pre-qualification camps that replicate work scenarios to assess the capabilities and continued interest of participants from all over the country. Westar picks up the participants’ lodging and meal expenses, a worthwhile investment for finding individuals suited to the work.
“We have an intern in Wichita who hitchhiked here from New Jersey and another line apprentice who heard about our company from a person he was stationed with off the coast of Guam,” Boyce said.
The company also offers a tuition assistance program and training opportunities to help employees enhance their capabilities as they change jobs, departments and/or divisions.
Westar partners with high schools in Topeka, Wichita, Emporia, Shawnee and other communities on Electrify Your Future, which gives students job-shadowing opportunities and exposure to five different career paths: corporate, engineer, lineman, power plant and substation.
In conjunction with Youth Entrepreneurs, Westar Energy launched summer programs in Topeka and Wichita to get high school students excited about math and science careers at the company. A Big Brothers/Big Sisters corporate Bigs program pairs Topeka Public Schools students with company mentors, and Westar employees also teach business principles to students of all ages through Junior Achievement.
“We have a big footprint in the state and a strong focus on the communities we’re in,” Banning says. “We work really hard to create an engaging environment. If our managers own that they are leaders, then it’s easier to build tools and programs to inspire people to work here.”
A HEALTH INSURER'S PLAN
At Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas, approximately 25 percent of its 1,600 employees are eligible to retire each year, but on average only 50 do, according to Abby Lear, director of human resources and facilities for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas.
“Blue Cross still has a large number of employees who have a pension benefit; therefore, we see fluctuations in retirement numbers more from quarter to quarter rather than year to year due to changes in interest rates,” she said.
The company has 37 confirmed retirements for the first quarter of 2017, but Lear expects the number to taper off for the remainder of the year.
With an average length of service of a little more than 14 years, Blue Cross and Blue Shield has been able to replace a 30-plus year retiree with “another tenured, knowledgeable and experienced employee ready to fill that role,” she said.
Lear attributes employee longevity in part to the company’s reputation as an employer and the stability of 75 years in business along with leadership and development programs, a collaborative work environment and cross-training efforts within various departments.
The company offers a summer internship program for college juniors and seniors with a majority of participants hired into information technology, industrial engineering, finance, human resources, government relations and community relations positions after graduation. In addition to working on assigned projects in their area of focus and learning more about the company’s business, interns collaborate on a community service project and wrap up the summer with a final presentation. The company also hires interns for the spring and fall semesters.
Blue University, an internal continuing education program, offers a variety of leadership courses and other offerings supplemented through a learning partnership with Washburn University’s School of Business. Participation allows employees to keep their skills current so they’ll be ready to move into new roles replacing retiring colleagues.
“The retirement of our baby boomers, which will continue for several more years, is creating a more multi-generational workforce,” Lear said. “We are learning that different generations are attracted to and retained by different benefits, work environments, work schedules and opportunities. We have to balance these changing needs with our overall desire to maintain our strong traditions and culture. Change is something that we have to embrace and constantly adjust to so we may better understand and serve our workforce.”