Tapping older workers is key to solving state’s workforce problem

Older workers are vital to keeping Minnesota’s workforce strong, and can be part of the solution to our state’s workforce problem.

In the Star Tribune’s Sept. 29 coverage of Minnesota’s tight job market and shrinking workforce, “Worker shortage threatens growth,” the challenges have been clearly articulated, but a promising opportunity is being overlooked.

Employers need to think and act differently about workers in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

We are members of a citizens commission formed as part of a Courageous Conversations project led by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The commission has been traveling to communities around the state for the past two years, meeting with employers, civic leaders and job-seekers to explore how Minnesota’s aging workforce is affecting their local economies and vitality.

In Marshall, Chisholm, Thief River Falls, Austin and the Twin Cities, we heard repeatedly that older adults often want and need to keep working, and employers consider them some of their finest and most steadfast employees.

So why assume they are all out the door when they hit retirement age? Rather than competing for the same 20-year-old worker (because, frankly, the supply just isn’t there, particularly in small towns and rural areas), employers need to focus on the folks already on the job.

What can employers do to hold on to these older workers and make the most of their contributions? In our final report, which we released last month, the committee makes the following recommendations:

• Consider retirement not as a cliff, but as a time of transition. Older adults are rethinking their commitments and their engagements, both paid and unpaid. Don’t assume everyone wants to stop working completely.

• Offer flexible work options such as part time or job sharing. A 70-year-old may not want to work full time but may be interested in a part-time position where they can still contribute knowledge and skills and be part of a work community.

• Offer leadership development and skills training to older adults. Don’t focus solely on young people. The investment in older workers is worth it — trends show they are often more likely to stick with a job than their younger peers.

• Acknowledge demographic changes and do the work required to build new connections. As workplaces become more diverse in terms of age, race, ethnicity and spoken languages, employers have an opportunity to build more robust work teams and find ways to keep all employees engaged.

That may mean stepping out of our comfort zones and doing things a little differently.

• Check your HR practices and update if needed. Rethink job requirements that unnecessarily weed out applicants, such as a driver’s license requirement or a specific degree. Break down barriers that keep people from being considered for jobs (e.g., applications that can only be taken online; screening software).

• Communication, communication. How do you find out if an older worker may want to stay on the job, even in a different capacity? Ask them. Start early, ask questions, and listen. And then do it again. And again.

It’s time for a shift in the narrative. If older adults can stay engaged in paid employment longer, rewards accrue at every level: Individuals hold on to a paycheck, health insurance, and a sense of purpose and connection; employers maintain and rebuild a strong workforce; and Minnesota’s economy stays strong and vital. Small towns and rural communities, in particular, serve to benefit from this change.

On Sept. 23, we wrapped up our series with a gathering at the Humphrey School featuring community leaders from around the state and a keynote from New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. A summary of the statewide meetings and our final report are available at z.umn.edu/courageous-conversations.

While the Courageous Conversations project was focused on older workers, we as citizen commission members are committed to many forms of innovation around issues of workforce development, including new immigrants (see report at z.umn.edu/immigrantsworkforce); differently abled workers; transplants who are new to Minnesota; and more. Let’s not be so focused on the challenges that we miss great solutions — especially those that are achievable with our coordinated effort and attention.

By Paul Anderson , Laurie Halverson and Debra Kiel; Star Tribune

Paul Anderson is a Republican state senator from Plymouth. Laurie Halverson is a DFL state representative from Eagan. Debra Kiel is a Republican state representative from Crookston. For a full commission roster, go to hhh.umn.edu/public-events/courageous-conversations.