Older Workers: The 50-50 Solution

Sept. 28, 2010

A younger construction worker teased an older worker about his age. Older worker: "Why don't you put your money where your mouth is? I'll bet a week's wages that I can haul something in a wheelbarrow over to that building and you won't be able to wheel it back." Braggart: "You're on, old man. Let's see what you got." The old man grabbed a wheelbarrow by the handles and said, "All right. Get in."

A younger construction worker teased an older worker about his age. Older worker: "Why don't you put your money where your mouth is? I'll bet a week's wages that I can haul something in a wheelbarrow over to that building and you won't be able to wheel it back." Braggart: "You're on, old man. Let's see what you got." The old man grabbed a wheelbarrow by the handles and said, "All right. Get in."

While this cartoon, courtesy of anti-aging psychologist Dr. Michael Brickey, may be a little silly, it does illustrate the serious value of the wiser, older construction worker and the unfortunate attitude that much of the industry has towards this valuable resource.

For decades, the lion's share of efforts to staff the construction business of tomorrow has gone towards attracting younger workers, not retaining or recruiting older workers. But with things developing as they are, that may prove to be short-sighted.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in the 21st century older Americans are expected to make up a larger share of the U.S. population. The share of the U.S. population age 65 and older is projected to increase from 12.4 percent in 2000 to 19.6 percent in 2030 and continue to grow through 2050.

In addition, fertility rates are at about the replacement level, contributing to the increasing share of the elderly population and a slowing in the growth of the labor force. Also contributing to the slowing in the growth of the labor force is the leveling off of women's labor force participation rate. While women's share of the labor force increased dramatically between 1950 and 2000 — from 30 percent to 47 percent — their share of the labor force is projected to remain at around 48 percent over the next 50 years.

Attracting Older Workers

As the proportion of younger workers continues to decline, attracting and retaining the mature, experienced worker will become increasingly critical for employers who seek to retain a competitive edge in today's marketplace. One group, the AARP, has recognized that a growing number of American employers are developing progressive workplace policies and practices that are meeting the needs of an aging workforce.

While no official grading exists, the construction industry does appear to get low marks for attracting older workers. In the 2007 edition of AARP Best Employers for Workers Over 50, an annual recognition program that acknowledges companies and organizations whose best practices and policies for addressing aging workforce issues, none of the firms are from the construction industry.

Physical Challenges

For the roles in construction that pose a physical challenge, the track record for keeping older workers isn't good. There is the physical wear and tear of actually doing the hands-on building of a construction project, of doing the heavy lifting, climbing in and out of holes, of enduring the extremes of freezing cold and boiling heat. There is the pain of cuts, scrapes, banged thumbs, sprained wrists, and broken ankles — you name it.

Equipment manufacturers wised up to this about 20 years ago when they started making some serious strides in ergonomics and comfort. Hard, flat, butt-breaking seats were replaced with molded, padded seats with all different levels of adjustability. Levers that took serious wrist strength to operate all day have been replaced with power-assisted joysticks that can offer operators better machine control with a light touch from a couple of fingers.

According to some recent studies in Europe, the over-50 worker is largely missing from the craft trades. In a 2003 report issued by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, construction showed the highest rate of accident risk: In 2002, an incidence rate 2.3 times higher than the average was reported. Another aspect is the high invalidity rate among construction workers: More than 60 percent of people retiring in the sector do so because of ill health.

It is important to note that the average age of actually ending employment among these blue-collar workers is 55.4 years, a year less than their actual retirement age. Thus, the study shows a substantial difference between blue- and white-collar workers: Nearly 60 percent of white-collar workers move directly from employment to retirement, whereas this is the case for only 40 percent of blue-collar workers.

Concerning life expectancy, the study also refers to data from Switzerland, comparing mortality rates by occupation. These data indicate the trade construction industry had a 50-percent above average mortality rate, while architects and engineers show a 25-percent below average mortality rate.

Retaining Older Workers

Over the last 20 years, the Austin, Texas-based Construction Industry Institute has concentrated on craft labor, worker productivity and the looming shortage of skilled crafts in the United States. But in keeping with the trends, the group has recently begun to put more efforts to address the question of how to recruit and retain leaders, many of the over-50 workers in construction.

CII chartered the Attract, Recruit, and Retain Engineering and Construction Leaders Project Team (PT 200) to explore the problem and to provide solutions that can be implemented by organizations throughout the industry. According to the findings of PT 200, companies need to develop human resource programs that will help attract and keep leaders rather than losing them to other industries with more attractive career packages.

Assumptions about travel demands, though, proved surprising. In one survey it assumed that temporary or permanent relocations in the construction business had a major, negative, influence on retention. Instead it found that most experienced staff were willing or even eager to follow projects to the site.

Image Problem

Mention construction to the layperson, and one is apt to get a simple definition of what type of work the profession entails. Yet that same business employs the project executive and formwork laborer; the soils engineer and heavy equipment technician; the business development manager and welder. All are industry professions, yet the general public talks mostly of the physical labor tasks.

A huge challenge for construction firms, says CII, is creating an "image" for their companies that targets the best talent. Creating an environment where employees maintain motivation and are committed to the company's future is also key. Overall, the industry needs a facelift.

Rather than positive, the current image is often dirty, strenuous and hazardous, even for managers. Add to that the familiar images of crews working outside in extremely hot, cold or wet weather, and no surprise: potential talent looks elsewhere for employment.

Best Practices

A report was issued in February by the U.S. General Accounting Office entitled "Older Workers: Some Best Practices and Strategies for Engaging and Retaining Older Workers." It looked at some of the key obstacles that hinder continued work at older ages.

According to the report, many employers cite both compensation — including the rising cost of health insurance — and training costs as obstacles to hiring and retaining older workers. The report also stated that many employers have not learned to place a high value on their experienced workers, instead gearing their succession planning toward replacing older workers with younger ones.

Also cited were negative stereotypes surrounding older workers that include the belief that such workers produce lower-quality work than their younger counterparts, and less work overall. Finally, but not least, it was suggested that some employers are hesitant to hire older workers for fear of age discrimination lawsuits.

At the same time, there are also strong incentives for workers to retire. The report acknowledged that a "culture of retirement" exists. The availability of Social Security at age 62 and high effective tax rates on earnings between age 62 and Social Security's full retirement age may discourage some workers from continuing to work once they start claiming benefits.

As part of the new approaches being used to engage older workers, the GAO reported that employers who are creative in how they design jobs and who allow for flexible work locations have an advantage in engaging older workers. Also important are benefit packages that complement some of these new work arrangements, including medical benefits and tuition reimbursement for employees working at least 15 hours per week. Modifying pension plans can also entice workers to work longer.

To limit exposure to age discrimination litigation, a consistent performance management system is essential for dealing with all workers. Besides fair treatment, the report concluded that it is also important to show older workers that they are valued.