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What I Told Senators About the Need for Older Workers

Our blogger's views and advice on hiring people 50+

When I was invited by the Senate Special Committee on Aging and its Chairman, Senator Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), and Ranking Member, Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), to testify at its June 24th hearing, Work in Retirement: Career Reinventions and the New Retirement Workscape, I was honored, and admittedly, a little thrilled.

The specific request: “We would like you to discuss the challenges that Americans who work in retirement or plan to work in retirement may face and the value that older workers can add to the workplace.”

I was asked because speaking and writing about older workers is one of the things I do — for Next Avenue, The New York Times, AARP, Forbes and in books such as Great Jobs for Everyone 50+. I accepted, of course, without hesitation. And this past Wednesday, I snapped on my pearls to share my insights on Capitol Hill.

Here’s what I told the Aging Committee, what the other experts testifying (Sara E. Rix, a former top advisor with the AARP Public Policy Institute; Jim Godwin, VP of Human Resources at the older-worker friendly Bon Secours Virginia Health System and Sue Nordman, owner of Erda Handbags, whose employees are mostly 60+) said, what the Senators said and what may happen as a result:

My Main Points to the Senators

Upon receiving the invite, I instantly knew what I wanted to talk about — the tough, sometimes heartbreaking, job challenges I’ve heard while traveling the country speaking to workers over 50 anxiously looking for jobs. I also planned to discuss and respond to employers’ concerns about hiring older workers. (You can listen in to the full hearing here and read my written testimony. Encore.org also has an excellent blog on the hearing. )

Older workers are staying longer in the workforce. Workers 65 to 69 made up 18 percent of the labor force in 1985, 32 percent in 2014.

I wasn’t surprised the Senate Aging Committee was taking up this issue. For one thing, Sen. Collins has been a leading voice advocating for the value of older workers and last year held a hearing on senior entrepreneurship.

Six of the committee’s members, in addition to Collins and McCaskill, attended the hearing: Democrats Bob Casey (Pa.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Tim Kaine (Va.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Republicans Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.).

The Theme of the Hearing

The overarching theme of the hearing was that working greatly enhances financial security.

Older workers are already staying longer in the workforce than in the past, Rix noted. Among workers 65 to 69, the labor force participation rate rose from 18 percent in 1985 to nearly 32 percent in 2014. Rix and I concurred that many older Americans work because they need the money, but also because they enjoy what they’re doing, want to remain active and want to make a contribution.

We both pointed out that job loss, ill health and caregiving duties prevent some people in their 60s and 70s from working. They simply can’t find less demanding jobs, new career options, good part-time jobs or flexible schedules. And, we told the committee, negative attitudes about the cost of older workers and their technological competence persist.

What the Senators Said

Collins kicked things off talking about employers “struggling to fill jobs with qualified workers” and the desire of older workers to keep working to shore up their financial security. She mentioned a recent AARP study debunking myths about 50+ workers. And Collins touched on some core concerns of older workers: that “their skills have become out of date,” that they’ve “lost touch with business trends” and age bias of employers “that’s difficult to prove, but widely reported.”

McCaskill, championing older workers, said: “Don’t tell me that you can’t teach an older dog new tricks and don’t tell me that older workers cost too much.” She said employers know it “makes no sense to see (their) best and brightest workers walk out the door at age 55” and need to find ways to “combat this brain drain,” partly by offering phased retirement programs.

She was also concerned about the challenges of health care for older workers, especially those between 60 and 65 who don’t yet qualify for Medicare and ones who work for small businesses where health care isn’t provided.

Kaine, who said his 80-year-old dad works at a local charity, emphasized that more employers need to be more flexible to recruit top workers of all ages.

Making a Worksite Better for Older Workers

What caught my attention from Nordman’s testimony was that when she bought the handbag manufacturer in 2013, she upgraded the equipment to be more ergonomic for her older workers. It was expensive, but improved production time, she said.

The new equipment, for instance, lets her workers sit, rather than stand, at the machines and reduces repetitive motion, which is not only a huge savings on joints but has practically eliminated hand cutting. While she said her firm couldn’t afford to pay health benefits, employees can set their own hours and receive paid sick days, vacation days and holidays.

Nordman joked that one thing she likes about having older employees: “There’s less turnover, less texting, less boyfriend drama….”

That got a laugh from the Senators.

Social Security Disability Benefits

One unexpected discussion, at least for me, came when Warren asked Rix about how the Social Security Disability Insurance program works, saying “one of the biggest economic challenges facing older workers is the increased risk of becoming disabled and unable to work.”

Rix reminded the Senator that most older workers are not disabled, but agreed they are more likely to become so with age. Social Security’s benefit is modest: an average of $1,165 a month in 2015, according to Warren, but it keeps millions of disabled Americans from falling into poverty.

Here’s why Warren brought it up: Money is routinely transferred between the Social Security Retirement Fund and the Social Security Disability Insurance fund. Next year, Warren explained, the disability fund will need a transfer. She maintained that House Republicans want “to gut” the Social Security disability program: “This is a ploy that doesn’t fool anyone. It’s an attack on seniors, and it’s time to stop playing games with the economic stability of millions of seniors who depend on Social Security to live with dignity.”

Casey led a short discussion about what employers can do to help the 2.7 million grandparents who are both responsible for their grandchildren and working. He asked: How can companies alleviate some of that burden? Godwin pointed out that his company’s onsite childcare programs work for young parents and grandparents raising their grandchildren.

Our Recommendations

Finally, Casey asked us to each toss out one suggestion for strengthening or changing a policy or introducing a new legislative or policy change that would help older workers.

Rix and I suggested additional resources for training or retraining older workers so they have the necessary qualifications to find work, change jobs or careers or re-enter the labor force after retiring from their full-time jobs.

Collins homed in, remarking that the skilled development programs offered by the federal government are often aimed at young workers coming out of college or technical schools via apprenticeship programs.

The lesson from the hearing, in Collins’ view: “We need to tailor more training programs to make sure people have the skills for the jobs that exist. There is mismatch between job training and the jobs that actually are out there. We need to better align training and education with jobs.”

She continued: “I think we’re facing a tsunami of retirees who will find that they are going to outlive their savings.” Working longer or working part time in retirement is a very important part of financial security for older Americans, she said. “And that is a message that I hope our committee is helping to disseminate.”

What Might Happen

What do I think Congress might do based on our testimony?

I suspect that the lowest lying fruit would be to ramp up federal career retraining opportunities and services at federal career centers such as career coaching.

But regardless of any immediate results, I think just shining the light on this topic can help make a difference.

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