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UMass Medical School wins AARP worker recognition

By Brian Goslow

WORCESTER —

The University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) has joined previous honorees DentaQuest of Charlestown, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge on AARP’s 2011 list of Best Employers for Workers Over 50.

The award follows an ongoing effort by UMMS to address issues related to older worker satisfaction, including the creation of a mature workforce committee which developed a “Program for the Mature Worker,” utilizing results from a Diversity and Equal Opportunity Office online climate survey.

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UMMS created programs to help employees with their career development. Employees at the school who work 20 hours or more a week are offered tuition reimbursement, certification classes and in-house classroom training. To assist employees who are vision-impaired, UMMS purchased technology such as Dragon speech recognition software.

“There are all kinds of training here for full-time and part-time employees,” said Patricia Keith, chair of the 20-member mature workforce committee, which is open to all UMMS employees. UMMS utilizes various Internet sites and job fairs to recruit mature employees; the university defines mature workers as 40 and older, following federal guidelines.

Keith said mature workers need to be retained.  “It’s going to be total brain drain when the baby boomers retire,” she explained. Thirty-four percent of the UMMS workforces is over 50 years old, 52 percent is over 40.

Administrative manager Susanna Perkins, who is in her 50s, has worked at UMass for over six years. “I had taken a buyout package at a high tech company and wanted to change industries,” she said. “I lived a half-mile away and wanted to work here. I wish, in hindsight, I had done this 10 years earlier.”

Perkins started at UMMS as a financial analyst; she was hired at a lower rate than she made in high tech. She noted the private sector tends to pay higher salaries. “I already had the background I needed for my position but I’ve taken a lot of internal educational classes,” Perkins said. “In switching from the private to the public sector, we didn’t deal with grants and used a different software system.”

She enjoys the shared environment of working in a place that is part hospital, part college campus. “My entire staff is over 50,” she said. “They have a great amount of experience — which comes with age — and a great work ethic too.”

They benefit from the option of a flexible work schedule and other benefits important to people of that generation, especially when it comes to caregiving concerns. “Folks in the sandwich generation have it more difficult than younger parents,” Perkins said. “They know where their kids are during the day. When you have elderly parents or kids in college, you’re not so sure. When an employee’s child had twins and another employee needed time to help elders, they took advantage of the flextime.”

Perkins personally benefited from her employer’s attention to older workers when she returned to the office after undergoing surgery for carpel tunnel syndrome. “They had an ergonomics person do a study on my workplace,” she said. “They changed my chair, keyboard and mouse, and the distance my monitor is from me, and gave me a foot rest.”

UMMS employees receive individual and family medical and prescription drug coverage and individual and family vision and dental insurance. At the request of its employees, UMMS worked with its vendors to provide healthier cafeteria food and add new nutritional information labeling.

Eydie Cullen, 53, of Medway, has worked in the university’s contract credibility and support services office for the past seven years; she’s been at UMMS for 12. “I had worked in high tech and put out a bunch of applications,” she said. “When UMass called, I thought I’d try something different.”

She enjoys working at UMMS. “I love the atmosphere of academia,” Cullen said. “I’ve never worked in a place with such a variety of people of all ages and different backgrounds. When you work with people of different ages, you learn things you wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to learn.”

Cullen has taken courses for new managers and research administrators, and is currently taking one through Commonwealth Medicine on leadership positions. “It’s a collaboration between UMass and Clark University that could lead to me getting a master’s degree in public health,” she said.

When UMMS workers retire the school encourages them to return to the campus a couple of days a week. “A lot of really seasoned faculty teachers retire and come back and teach medical students,” Keith said. “They’ve been teaching students for 30 or more years. They’re great and good at it.”

Cullen agreed. “The value they bring is the history and being someone who knows how things work, she said. “They give you the continuity; they know whom to go to if you need help (solving a problem).”

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