Categorized | Features

Companies courting older workers

By Brian Goslow

WATERTOWN —

After serving 20 years as an administrator for the City of Boston, Katrina Clark left her position to become the full-time caregiver for both of her parents. She didn’t attempt to return to the workforce for over a decade, till after her dad had passed away and her mother followed after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

“I had decided not to place my mother in anyone else’s care as it was more important for me to take care of her,” she said. “So that’s what I did, in addition to caring for three grandchildren.”

When Clark went to a temp agency to test for possible positions, she noticed many of the other applicants were only a third her age. “No matter how smart you are, it kind of shatters your confidence when you look at what your competition is for the relatively few jobs that are out there,” she said.

She returned home to a phone call from the agency, assigning her to a six-month sales job at Tufts Health Plan. “I had never in my entire life, ever sold anything, not even Girl Scout cookies, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect,” she said. Thanks to a rigorous eight-week hands-on training process, Clark said, “a mature woman brought into their employ as a temp” was able to work at a level she didn’t expect she was capable of.

Clark, 60, has been employed as a full time member of the company’s Medicare Preferred sales team for five years; the health plan’s willingness to help her find her strengths — focusing on her skills as an educator and a caretaker in helping her fine-tune her sales pitch — is indicative of the attention it gives to developing its older workers.

Tufts Health Plan was recently honored by AARP and the Society for Human Resources Management with its 2013 Best Employers for Workers over 50 award, an honor given every two years to 50 companies nationwide. Two other Massachusetts-based employers — Massachusetts General Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — joined Tufts on the list.

As members of the 78 million baby boomer population retire, they are creating gaps in the workforce since there are not enough younger people to fill the positions. Many boomers want to keep working for economic or social reasons but prefer flexibility, so companies are finding innovative incentives to attract this age group.

As employers in the state and nationwide acknowledge the generational shift currently taking place in the workforce, it is clearly in their best interest to recognize which practices are attracting and retaining quality workers, said AARP Massachusetts executive director Michael Festa.

“We know that older workers have a lot of value,” said Festa. “By definition, they’ve been around the block and they have experiences and credibility from those experiences that really matter to employers as they try to diversify their workforce. In many places, that experience is irreplaceable.”

Among those practices which have proven attractive are flexible work schedules that make it easier for employees to look after their elderly parents and, for some, younger children; programs and classes that encourage professional development; and good health benefits and savings programs that assist workers in preparing for their later years.

“Our job (at AARP) is to remind those employers that are thinking, ‘How can I improve the quality of my workforce?’ to look to those 50-plus workers and recognize that if you employ practices which are not going to hurt your bottom line, you are going to absolutely capture this real quality workforce,” said Festa. “By using flexible hours, professional development and job sharing, those kinds of things, as an employer, if you use those practices, you’re going to attract those kinds of workers, you’re going to retain the ones that you have and you’re going to get a better performance bottom line in the day-to- day activities of the job.”

To assist older workers looking for employment, the AARP website provides job searching tools, including a search feature for employers in the job seeker’s immediate area that have proven to be welcoming.

“If you’re a worker hungry to get a job opportunity, you’re going to be directed (to those available positions in your region). You’ll be looking at these kinds of employers and saying, ‘Wow, they’ve got people like me in their sights,’ ” Festa said. These listings also include access to enhanced job opportunities throughout the United States, invaluable to folks looking to relocate.

Cathy Marino, 60, has worked in Tufts Health Plan’s Medicare Advantage division for five and a half years. She joined the company after being laid off from her previous position. Her employment history included working for two travel agencies and before that, spending 20 years in the psychiatric care field — as well as owning and running two successful businesses of her own.

Marino has utilized a variety of programs offered by the company, including its tuition reimbursement plan that is allowing her to achieve one of her bucket list goals — to earn her bachelor’s degree in business through UMass Amherst’s “University Without Walls” online degree program, which she will do this spring. She also participates in programs offered by Tufts to learn more about the company and the health care industry in general.

She also takes advantage of Tuft’s wellness program, from scheduling regular workouts at its downstairs gym to enjoying daily salads at its salad bar (with the company subsidizing 25 percent of the cost), in its cafeteria, which Tufts likes to call, “the biggest restaurant in Watertown.” She hadn’t thought about her diet prior to working at Tufts. “I’m a much healthier eater since I started here at Tufts than I ever was before; I’ve become more aware of what I eat and what it contains,” she said.

The ongoing interaction between generations of workers has also kept her mind healthy. Older workers share their experiences with younger workers, Marino said, and in doing so, they’ve learned from their younger colleagues. “It’s a two-way street,” Marino said. “It’s a great sharing and learning experience from both ends of the spectrum, age-wise.” 

Lydia Green, Tufts Health Plan’s vice president of human resources and diversity, said honors such as the Best Employers for Workers Over 50 award are helpful to the company’s brand and business and in attracting high caliber employees. “People do look at lists,” she said.

Over 30 percent of Tufts’ employees are 50 or older. “They’re hugely important to us,” Green said. “The health insurance business is a complex, sophisticated business and it requires a lot of job skills to come and work in a business like ours and those are the kinds of individuals who have tremendous experience they can bring to us.”

Not only do these new employees arrive with the energy and excitement of starting a new role in their own lives, she added, they bring many years of experience to the workplace. “In general, someone who comes to the job with 20 years of experience can typically hit the ground running and contribute quicker than someone who is fresh out of college,” Green said.

While the company is headquartered in Watertown, its network health division is in Medford and it has sales offices in Worcester and Springfield, as well as Providence.

In announcing its “Best Employers” designation, AARP heralded Tufts’ Wellness Work/Life Program that offers older worker-designed benefits, including counseling those living with older parents, searching for elder care services and providing legal advice and personal finance consultations.

New employees are automatically enrolled in its 401(k) retirement plan; the company matches contributions made by employees, who can opt out if they don’t wish to participate. Tufts also adds to employee accounts at the end of a successful year — invaluable to someone like Clark, 60, who was afraid her decade plus away from the workforce would leave her with an insurmountable gap in her retirement account. “That’s been a real blessing,” she said.

The company has seen a constant uptick in employees using its wellness programs, including accessing its onsite gym and full-time wellness coach to improve their physical health and visiting the onsite medical clinic, where many took advantage of getting flu shots.

“Half our challenge, quite frankly, is communication, communication, communication and making people aware of the benefits they do have,” Green said. That’s accomplished through regular e-mails, including a weekly e-mail from CEO James Roosevelt, Jr., colorful posters announcing events, TV screens in its lobby and cafeteria, mailings from vendors, town hall meetings and employees sharing information among themselves.

Such communication and the people-to-people contact make going to work each day a pleasure for Len Johnson, who turned 80 in August; a widower for 17 years, the smiling faces he sees while on the job provide invaluable warmth. “I like the people — not only the people that I work with, but the people I’ve met or just talked to in the hallways,” he said. “I’m a guy who’ll strike up a conversation with almost anybody.”

Johnson arrived at the company as a temp in 1999, with a resume that includes a degree in business administration, 20 years with the U.S. Air Force and working in computer operations at Raytheon in Andover and other locations after being laid off. “I did that for a couple of years and they (the temp agency) called me one day and asked me if I knew a certain program and I said, ‘No I don’t,’ and I figured it was time to stop doing that.”

He was alternating between temporary light warehouse and general office work when he got the call asking him if he’d like to go to Tufts Health Plan to help organize its filing system. “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s filing,” Johnson said. “But they told me that if I was good and did my work, there was a good chance that I would get hired. So I came in and I did what I was asked to do.”

He straightened out the files and was soon offered a full-time job working in the pre-registration department. “I’ve told other people who’ve come in as temps, if you keep your nose clean and you work hard, there’s a doggone good chance that you could be hired because that is the way that I came into the company.”

After six years on the job, getting a little tired of the position and looking for something new, Johnson moved to an opening in the case management department, where he answers the phone, directs e-faxes, prepares mailings for health plan members and orders supplies.

He switched to part-time two years ago and while he doesn’t have any definitive plans to retire — “As far as I know, Tufts doesn’t have a plan where they throw you out after a certain age, which, if they did, I’ve already gone by it,” he laughed — he thinks another two years of work would suit him fine.

“Maybe less than that — I might get lucky and win the lottery or something like that.”

One Response to “Companies courting older workers”

  1. Amy A. says:

    My thoughts on this, having been thrown out of a global company with 10,000 close friends during the Great Recession, and completely re-inventing myself:

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