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Gray America presents challenge, opportunity


Rita is a 35-year veteran of Scottsdale Healthcare, where she works full time as a medical technician in the hematology team.

She's an active participant in the local symphony, delivers food every week to the homeless, and is an avid gardener who mows her own lawn and walks the hospital stairs every day for exercise.

She is usually the first person to volunteer for training on new lab equipment and coworkers describe her as "dedicated and loyal," "good natured," "wise," and "motivated."

Rita is 80 years old.

Corporate America is becoming grayer every year, which poses some significant challenges and opportunities for employers. And nowhere is it more apparent than in the impending labor shortage.

The oldest of the roughly 76 million or so baby boomers turn 61 this year and are beginning to retire, leaving the significantly fewer--46 million, according to one estimate--of Generation Xers to fill those spots. The Employment Policy Foundation, for one, estimates that the United States will be 10 million workers short by 2015 and 35 million workers short by 2030.

While it is clear that employers are at risk of a serious "brain drain," the good news is that employers have a growing pool of mature workers as potential hires. The number of workers 55 years and older, for example, is expected to grow from 15.6% of the workforce in 2004 to 21.2% in 2014, according to the Department of Labor.

But if employers want to take advantage of this pool of skilled and experienced labor, they need to do more to attract and retain them, and that means creating an age-friendly culture and offering various benefits that a more mature workforce would want, such as flexible work arrangements.

Of the 100 human resource executives Ernst & Young L.L.P. surveyed in late 2005, 42.2% agreed that the aging workforce is an issue that must be dealt with, and more than half of those said it would lead to a labor shortage. Additionally, 62.5% said they believed that expected retirements over the next five years at their companies would cause a talent gap. But only 17.8% said the aging of their workforce is an issue that is strategically very important to them.

One employer that seems to get it is Scottsdale Healthcare, which actively recruits and retains mature and experienced workers like Rita.

The Arizona health care provider, for example, offers a variety of benefits that are attractive to mature workers. The benefits include a seasonal leave program in which employees can work full- or part-time for six months of the year and then take the remaining six months off and still receive full medical, dental, life and disability benefits.

All employees working at least 16 hours a week are eligible for tuition reimbursement benefits as well as medical, vision, dental and long-term care coverage. Employees working at least 30 hours a week receive short- and long-term disability.

It also offers a 403(b) retirement savings plan to all of its full- and part-time employees--with a 100% match on the first 4% of a workers' contribution.

Not surprisingly, Scottsdale Healthcare has been among the AARP's Best Employers for Workers Over 50 ranking for each of the past four years. Twenty-seven percent of its 6,000 employees are over the age of 50.

While the health care provider has not conducted any internal studies to determine the benefit and compensation cost implications of retaining a large percentage of older workers, any additional costs are more than offset by the company's savings in retention, said Douglas Maxwell, director of employee relations and human resources, who noted that turnover costs are estimated at about 30% of the annual salary of the person leaving.

"A 2% reduction in voluntary turnover equates to more than $1 million saved for the company," Mr. Maxwell said.