Employers tend to get a bad rap — often deservedly — for their attitudes about hiring, retaining and nurturing workers over 50. Frequently, older workers and older job applicants are perceived as lethargic, expensive and behind the times. So let me tell you about 13 employers who see things very differently: the winners and finalists of the 2017 Age Smart Employer Awards.
The Age Smart Employer Award program, now in its third year, is a project of Columbia University’s Columbia Aging Center at the Mailman School of Public Health. The awards, given to New York City-based businesses and nonprofits of any size, are a “culture change initiative,” says director Ruth Finkelstein, who is also a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging.
“We do them to call attention to the concrete and specific policies and practices that employers can use, and are using, to recruit, engage and retrain workforces of all ages, including older workers,” Finkelstein said.
I was fortunate to be on the selection committee for this year’s honorees and attended yesterday’s inspiring ceremony in New York City’s fabled Rainbow Room where the awards were given out. (Next Avenue blogger and author Kerry Hannon gave the keynote speech.)
Significance of the Age Smart Employer Awards
“We’ve increased our life expectancy by 50 percent in the last 100 years. That’s astounding and an immense achievement to be proud of. Now we have to design society for longer lives, and these awards, I think, are a linchpin of that,” said Dr. Linda Fried, dean of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging.
A hundred firms and nonprofits entered the 2017 competition, double the number in 2016, which was 2 ½ times the number of the year before. The breadth of applicants expanded, too.
The growth in the number and type of entrants is partly because more employers know about the awards and because more are adopting age-smart practices, Finkelstein said. “While the finalists and winners every year have been superlative, this year the overall quality of applicants was higher,” she noted. “It wasn’t just the biggest crop ever, it was the best.”
Gary Kesner, executive vice president for Silvercup Studios (one of this year’s Age Smart Employer Award winners) offered a terrific quote at the ceremony: “As a mature worker myself, I can only echo Ingrid Bergman, who said: ‘Getting old is like climbing a mountain; you get a little out of breath, but the view is much better!'”
The seven 2017 Age Smart Employer Award finalists were The Bronx Zoo, Diller-Quaile School of Music, Educational Alliance (a social service agency), Sew Right, Steinway & Sons, Veselka (a Ukrainian diner) and WithumSmith + Brown (an accounting firm).
At WithumSmith + Brown, everyone has a mentor. “That’s near and dear to my heart,” said Theresa Richardson, chief talent officer and a partner at the firm. The coaches and mentees there are required to meet three times a year. “The more often you meet to revisit goals, the greater the chance of achieving the goals,” said Richardson.
Here are thumbnail sketches about the six Age Smart Employer Award winners:
The 2017 Age Smart Employer Award Winners
National Grid: This utility company likes recruiting experienced workers from its competitors and invites retirees to come back part-time — to train employees and to help out during emergencies. Said Ed Hayes, National Grid’s U.S. vice president for talent acquisition. “People talk about the aging workforce. We just call them our workforce.”
Urban Health Plan: A nonprofit health care provider, Urban Health Plan makes a point of bringing on, keeping and caring for its older employees. “You hire community members in their 50s, 60s and 70s, but you don’t just hire them,” said Finkelstein. “You set them up for success with intensive and ongoing training and mentoring.”
PKF O’Connor Davies: While large accounting firms frequently force partners to retire around age 60 (“the accounting industry is not world famous for age-smart practices,” joked Finkelstein) this one not only doesn’t — it hires them. “We bring people into our organization who may be ‘aged out’ in other organizations,” said Kevin Keane, managing partner at PKF O’Connor Davies, which has 742 employees. Those employees then mentor younger ones.
“It’s not an age thing; we just want quality, talented people,” said Keane. “Yesterday, I was talking to a partner who is 82 and still working seven days a week. I keep telling him he should have a flexible schedule [working fewer hours and days], but that’s what he wants.” Keane added: “If I were at a Big Four accounting firm, I’d be aged out today. So I like the policy of not being aged out.”
Riverdale Country School: This Bronx-based private K-12 school is intentional about retaining teachers and staff. It offers faculty sabbaticals after 10 years, “passion grants” that let workers pursue their interests (from learning tango to writing fiction) and the ability to restructure jobs for less-strenuous ones (custodians have become security guards, for example). Said Dominic Randolph, head of the school: “I and our team have the amazing privilege of working with people ages 4 to 92.” He’s especially proud of the passion grant program: “It’s great to see our community engaged at all ages and continuing to keep on learning throughout their lifetime. You have to keep reinventing yourself. These people do that every day and the kids are inspired by that.”
Lee Spring: You might not think a spring manufacturer with 79 employees would be age smart, but then you don’t know Lee Spring, headquartered in the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Half its workforce is over 50 (some execs started as factory laborers and its president began as a machinist 30 year ago). The Age Smart Employer Awards selection committee was also taken by the company’s “impressive culture and ethos of flexibility,” said Finkelstein. Some employees have been allowed to move to facilities in warmer climates or work fewer hours. Fun fact: the six Lee Spring employees who came to the awards ceremony had a total of 161 years of work experience.
Silvercup Studios: If the accounting profession isn’t known for being age smart, that’s doubly true for the entertainment industry. But Silvercup Studios, New York City’s largest full-service film and TV production facility and where Sopranos, Girls and Sex and the City have filmed, is an exception. At this family-owned company, the median age of its 49 employees is over 50. Two just celebrated their 30th anniversary with Silvercup.
“We don’t look at someone’s age when we hire them because it doesn’t matter. We’re looking for people who can do the job,” Kesner, 67, told me.
Being age smart is just being business smart, said Kesner: “We try to encourage loyalty to our company. It’s good for our business. It costs more to recruit and replace employees than to retain them.” Also, he added, older employees “are not necessarily looking to move up and out,” have low absenteeism rates and “have a maturity in handling problems; they don’t get as rattled.”
He closed the ceremony with these words: “I look forward to a day when awards of this kind are no longer necessary, when ageism in the workplace is a thing of the past and hiring mature workers is second nature to all employers.”
That’s an admirable wish. But I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more Age Smart Employer Awards for quite a few years ahead.
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