Meaningful careers, valued perspectives are what keep 50-plus employees vital and in the game
By Donna Olmstead/Journal Staff Writer
Local workers 50 and older, like their national counterparts, say meaningful work and respect from their peers and bosses keep them satisfied at work. Of course, most need the income, along with the health and retirement benefits and especially appreciate flexible working conditions. “I love it here. I really think I’ve found my home,” says Karen Smoot, 67, a divisional vice president at Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico, who has worked at the company for 17 years. “I told my boss I would stay until I’m 70, but no one is forcing me to stay. This is a friendly place because of the people. My staff is fun and competent. That’s good, because I’m here 12 hours a day. This is an incredibly rewarding time because of what’s happening in health care.” Management at highly ranked workplaces, like Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Mexico, Sandia National Laboratories, Lovelace Women’s Hospital and Don Chalmers Ford, say benefits, like health care and retirement plans, flexible work conditions and career development motivate mature workers and keep their entire staff engaged.
These local responses mirror AARP surveys, published this summer, that polled older workers and studied workplaces to discover what makes the best work environment for people older than 50.
“Blue Cross Blue Shield absolutely values all of our employees,” says Janice Torrez, a boomer and vice president of external affairs and chief of staff. “But we really value the knowledge and expertise that our more seasoned workers bring.”
Both Smoot and boomer Susan Reuler, a recently hired nurse who manages the Medicare program, say they value that as employees they are encouraged to volunteer for community programs, like the American Heart Association, Roadrunner Food Bank or Making Strides Against Breast Cancer.
“I’m a breast cancer survivor,” says Reuler. “Giving back to the community helps empower me.”
The company will hire more than a hundred employees in the coming year because of new contracts for Medicare and Medicaid, Torrez says. Of the 798 employees of a recent count, 271 are 50 and older.
The AARP surveys show older employees bring knowledge into the workplace, along with maturity, experience and a proven ability to get along with others. Experienced workers are often more motivated to exceed expectations on the job than their younger counterparts and they’re more engaged. Other similar studies show when they’re hired, older workers serve as mentors, embrace a strong work ethic and take their jobs seriously.
Recruiting and retaining people 50 and older will become even more important as the workforce ages.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2016, one-third of the total U.S. workforce will be 50 or older, up from 28 percent in 2007, while the percentage of workers in their early twenties is projected to decline.
At Don Chalmers Ford, owner and dealer Don Chalmers says about 35 percent of his 165 full-time employees are 50 or older. Chalmers, 65, says he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
“I value all good employees, whether they are 25 or 65 years old. I don’t like one group more than another. I value the wisdom and experience of the older employees and the energy and innovation of the younger employees.”
He says he’s learned that older employees are more conscientious, loyal and are safer drivers, a valuable skill to a car dealer: “I respect the wisdom of people who have a few miles on them. Hopefully we’ve learned something over the years. It’s not that we’re smarter, but I hope we’re wiser.”
Integrating multigenerational talent is a skill that can be learned and appreciated by more mature workers.
Retired Air Force Col. David G. Minster, 55, now manager of the wind energy technologies department at Sandia National Laboratories, says younger workers are an asset to his team.
“Assume you are their aunt or uncle. You don’t need to move as fast as they do or learn as fast, but you can’t hold them back. Stand on the side of their path, help them stay on it, encourage them, watch out for hazards that they can’t see and be there to help them around those hazards when they hit them. Then step aside again and let them go. They will amaze you at what they can do.”
Minster says the stability of working at Sandia attracted him when he retired in 2005: “People my age are generally looking for a work environment where they can use their experience to make a meaningful contribution. Sandia is a place like that.”
Sandia’s good benefits, a focus on wellness, career development and job security appealed to him, “but job stability is what I craved the most. I came from the USAF where I had 10 different assignments in 25 years, lots of travel and lots of time away. That’s OK in your 20s and 30s. It loses its appeal as you start to value your family more.”
Of Sandia’s 9,500 permanent employees, 40 percent are people 50 and older, says spokeswoman Heather Clark.
Respecting and valuing all their employees and rallying collaboration among the generations has earned Lovelace Women’s Hospital a half-dozen workplace awards, including a rank of 12 in a national best 100 places to work Modern Healthcare poll, says Carol Shelton, the hospital’s human resources director.
“There is going to be some conflict — we have people who say they come from the old school and can’t learn something new and the new generation coming in has different interests. They do collide, of course they do,” she says.
But ironing out those differences and celebrating the diversity is part of ongoing leadership training. For example, to appreciate their differences, participants each brought in their favorite music and shared it at one recent meeting, she says.
The average age of the 750 employees at the hospital is 43, so a large proportion of those are workers 50 and older, Shelton says.
Charge nurse Jayanna Dussart says having younger and older nurses on her team makes it more efficient and productive.
“I’m a seasoned nurse. I have expertise that they don’t, but they have training and knowledge that I don’t. Here we have a good skill mix. We really embrace new employees across the continuum.”
Dussart, 50, says she’s been with Lovelace for 20 years and she appreciates that her staff and co-workers feel like family: “I’m here 12 and half hours a day. I spend more awake time with peers than I do with my husband. This is family for me.”
She says she appreciates that she is respected and recognized for her expertise and skill. She says her employer has been flexible with her when she needed family time with her father, who passed away this year, and earlier when she had knee surgery and needed to work light duty.
“They appreciated my expertise,” she says. “They wanted me at work even if I couldn’t do bedside nursing at the time.”
By the numbers
34: percentage of employees at Blue Cross Blue Shield over age 50
35: percentage of employees at Don Chalmers Ford over age 50
40: percentage of employees at Sandia National Labs over age 50
43: average age of employees at Lovelace Women’s Hospital
Carol Shelton, left, human resources director at Lovelace Women’s Hospital, and charge nurse Jayanna Dussart often confer about staffing. The hospital has won several workplace awards.