Everything Changes: Transition Planning for an Aging Workforce

September 20th, 2006 by

In our three years of blogging, the Insider has developed a few persistent themes, one being the impact of an aging workforce on risk management. We know that older workers tend to work safer – they have lower frequency rates for injuries – but once injured, they are slower to recover. The older you are, the longer it takes to bounce back (we write from personal experience). We also know that older workers are more prone to shoulder injuries (one of the more expensive injuries in the comp system).
Given our premise that good management takes a proactive approach to any pending problems, we believe that managers have to plan for the inevitable transition to a younger workforce. Managers need to identify the older workers whose skills and experience are essential to the company’s success and take steps to preserve their knowledge and experience. At the same time, managers must be alert to aging workers whose ability to perform the job is eroding. Good managers keep their eyes open. They are always alert. And they don’t expect potential problems to solve themselves.
The Tennessee Valley Authority tackled the problem of knowledge retention in an interesting manner. Confronted with the retirement of skilled older workers and the need to train their young replacements, they came up with three simple questions for managers:
What knowledge is likely to be lost when particular employees leave? (the “What?”)
What will be the business consequences of losing that knowledge? (the “So what?”)
And what can be done to prevent or minimize the damage? (the “Now what?”)

Get Talking
On the workers comp side, the challenges are a little different. Employers are worried about exposures that increase with age. At a workers comp seminar in the Lakes region of New Hampshire yesterday, company managers raised a number of questions relating to older workers:
– “We have a 73 year old maintenance man. Truly indespensible. He’s just coming back from knee surgery. Should we take him back? Is our comp going to pay for the next surgery?”
– “We have a morbidly obese hairdresser, in her mid-60s. She has to stand to perform her job. If her knees or hips give out, will that be work related?”
– “I have a electrician who went out on comp for his right knee about two years ago. Now he’s out for his left knee. The right knee is giving him trouble again. Do I take him back?”
– “I have an auto mechanic who is losing his eyesight. In a year or so, he’ll be blind. What should I do?”
These are very difficult questions. The answers begin with a simple but not necessarily easy task: opening lines of communication with employees (and their doctors) in areas where communication has not existed in the past. When in doubt, talk it out. I’ve often found that workers whose skills are eroding, whose bodies are breaking down, respond with a sense of relief to have the issue out in the open. (To be sure, some are in complete denial, in which case you have to focus consistently on the specific job functions that are not being performed to company standards.) Ideally, managers should try to reach a mutual accommodation that satisfies all parties. It’s not always possible, but it’s surely the optimum goal.
For example, in the case of the mechanic losing his eyesight, the employer could help this person begin the transition to a sightless life. Help the worker access services for the visually impaired. Work closely with the treating physician on phasing out job responsibilities. Perhaps the worker could mentor a younger replacement. This worker is confronted with a life management situation for which he is not really prepared. The employer’s good management skills, along with his sincere respect and concern for the worker, can help facilitate a successful transition.
When confronted with a challenge relating to an aging workforce, managers should keep in mind the process outlined by the TVA: identify the issues, explore the implications and then figure out what you can do about it. The what, the so what and the now what.
Let’s Talk some More?
The challenges of an aging workforce are formidable. As is so often the case in the 21st century, we are dealing with unprecedented problems and issues. Just as we need to find ways to encourage a new dialogue between managers and aging workers, managers need to find ways to access the latest information. The Insider is participating in an “Aging Workforce Summit” in Chicago at the end of October. We think the summit offers a great opportunity to confront the full gamut of issues relating to older workers. We expect to learn a lot, even as we try to help managers answer the kinds of questions raised in the New Hampshire seminar.
Check out the conference website here. You’ll find some interesting articles that carry the above discussion a little further.