Workforce Planning Helps Your Business Avoid Brain Drain

America’s workforce, like the rest of the country, is aging. Due to a variety of reasons, American workers are staying on the job longer. In the retail industry, there are nearly as many employees 65 and older (1.1 million) as there are teenagers (1.2 million). In the U.S., 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day, a trend that will continue for another 10 years. And many of those people are working into their 60s, 70s and in some cases 80s. This creates both challenges and opportunities for retail businesses that a little bit of workforce planning can help remedy. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the average retail employee is nearly 38 years old. That’s barely scratching the millennial generation and a far cry from Generations X, Y and Z. Some of the industry specialties make 38 seem young, too. The average age at a retail florist is nearly 51. Gift store and household appliance store salespeople employees average almost 47, hardware stores average nearly 43, and building materials employees are roughly 42. 

Not surprisingly, electronics stores and clothing stores range from 30 to 32, while shoe stores are the pups of retail with the average employee (23.3) barely old enough to buy liquor in many states. 

This is a worldwide trend. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says in the 30-year span from 1994 to 2024, workers 55 and older will evolve from being the smallest segment of the U.S. working population to the largest. 

With baby boomers working well into their traditional retirement years, the American workforce currently has five generations employed. They’re spread from the silent generation – those born between 1928 and 1945 – to Gen Y. 

People as puzzle piecesMaking the Pieces Fit

Managing this diverse workforce requires planning and presents both challenges and opportunities for employers. Among the challenges are understanding and communication with coworkers. 

Mark Harris, a leadership development consultant, tells Hardware Retailing that challenges facing business owners and supervisors are instilling cross-generational understanding and communication.  

Younger workers often assume that their seniors are still working because they didn’t save properly for retirement. While that could be the case, older workers who grew up during the Great Depression could have also lost a lifetime’s retirement savings in the Great Recession. They could also like the fulfillment work provides. 

Older workers, who often took jobs or developed careers based on social stability and security, don’t understand younger workers’ professional motivations. Harris says millennials through Gen Z often select jobs to learn specific skills or have a social impact. Younger workers can also harbor a certain resentment of older workers they might view as impediments to promotions or advancement. 

Management of such workforce diversity requires a deft touch. 

Developing knowledge-sharing programs. Intergenerational workshops or teams, company coaching initiatives or mentoring programs are a few ways to improve communication, understanding and build a cohesive team. 

Learn how to communicate. Harris says older and younger workers communicate differently. Older workers spent their careers getting face-to-face instruction and are used to telephone communication. Younger workers are text-based. Text or email messages tend to be their avenue of choice. 

It’s Not Just Your Workforce

Your workforce isn’t the only diverse group with which you need to improve communication. Your clientele is also changing – older people are staying in the market longer and younger people are becoming the dominant consumers. So, to remain relevant to both groupsmerchants should consider adjusting messaging and marketing. 

Print and television advertising might be hitting home for customers 40 and older, but digital messaging like targeted emails, texts (SMS – short message service) and social media advertising probably finds the mark with younger shoppers. 

Image of two older lumberyard workers.Not Old. Experienced! 

Although older workers might be challenged with new technology, experience in any job is invaluable. Many industries are suffering “brain drain” resulting from inadequate workforce managementLoss of highly trained or skilled workers, often with decades of job-specific experience, is causing anxiety in many industries.  

LBM Journal, a lumber and building materials digital publication, recently asked its readers about the effects of “brain drain” on their businesses. Approximately 94% of the industry is very or somewhat concerned about how knowledge loss will affect their businesses. Their reactions ranged from serious concern to relief. 

Many felt the loss of institutional knowledge would hurt business. Some are looking for ways to manage their workforce and keep older workers in the fold.

Offer part-time or flexible schedules.

Provide sabbaticals, or more vacation or personal time off.

Allow the ability to work from home.

Enlist them for mentorship programs.

These supervisors see younger sales associates as ways to attract new customers. They can relate better to younger builders, contractors and new homeowners. 

Old Folks. Old Ways. 

Some business owners or managers expressed an interest in moving on to younger workers. They saw mentorship programs as “tricky” and an avenue to stifling new thinking and younger employees. 

The biases against older workers include that they are: 

Resistant to change in processes and technology.

Impediments to business progress.

Less motivated and less flexible.

Absent too often.

Old Biases 

In fact, a feature from Deloitte called “No Time to Retire” found that mature workers tend to display stronger organizational skills, are more reliable and loyal, and have a stronger work ethic than their junior coworkers. 

More research from Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging and the Stanford Center on Longevity found older employees took fewer sick days, showed stronger problem-solving skills, and were more likely to be highly satisfied at work than younger colleagues. Strikingly, it’s often millennials, who haven’t yet found their happy spot in their careers and are still looking around, who are less passionate about their work.  

“People are getting to their sixties with another 15 years of productive life ahead, and this is turning out to be the most emotionally rewarding part of life. They don’t want to hang it up and just play golf. That model is wrong,” Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, says. 

Those attitudes are leading up to 85% of today’s baby boomers to eschew retirement and continue working in some capacity. 

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

With unemployment at historic lows and many older people seeking new roles in the workforce, it makes sense for businesses to not just consider hiring them, but to create positions in which they can thrive and be assets to business. 

A recent survey of 150 human resources leaders by Challenger, Gray & Christmas shows that 80% of employers are having difficulty with workforce management. Approximately 70% of them identify skills shortages as the reason why they can find competent workers. Skilled mature workers looking to remain active and engaged can be the perfect candidates for these positions. 

For independent retailers, older workers come with many benefits. Their skills are already established, so they require less training. And they already have a network of neighborhood connections that can only strengthen customer loyalty and possibly bring in new shoppers. 

Most older workers are looking to share their experience and therefore make valuable mentors for younger generations. According to Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Survey, 80% of them are looking for on-the-job training opportunities, so matching them with mentors makes sense. 

Hiring mature workers doesn’t mean having to teach old dogs new tricks. With a lifetime of experience and career skills, mature workers can bring a breath of fresh air to your business. 

Brian Bullock