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Aging workforce in state, nation growing challenge

Creative thinking needed to remedy shortages

It’s no secret that the average age of U.S. residents is increasing. Mississippi is no exception. The average age of Mississippians is increasing and will continue to do so until well into the 21st Century as Baby Boomers reach retirement age and as medical advances increase life expectancy.

Implications in the workforce are myriad as competition for talent is likely to increase significantly. Dr. Barbara J. Logue, senior demographer for the State Institutions of Higher Learning, says that nationwide older people are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, and that also holds true for Mississippi.

“Given that migrants are typically young adults, such movement tends to reduce the population of women of childbearing ages as well as the number of young married couples just starting their families,” she said. “Thus, net out-migration will speed the aging of the state’s population, raising the proportion of old people, the median age of the population and the proportion of older workers.”

Jay Moon, president and CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturing Association, says that the large numbers of workers who will soon be retiring and the smaller numbers of the generations behind them means companies will face a worker shortage. Not just skilled workers but total number of workers.

“Estimates are that we will face a shortage of seven million non-college educated workers and 14 million postsecondary workers by 2020,” he said. “Employers will need to find creative ways to retain skilled and experienced workers once they approach retirement.”

Extending mandatory retirement ages and hiring retirees as contractual workers are two ideas, Moon added. Other options include using retirees to train younger workers, utilizing them in advisory roles and hiring them on a part-time basis.

Those are options being used in the already labor-challenged field of nursing, according to Wanda Jones, executive director of the Mississippi Office of Nursing Work Force.

“The nursing shortage is a very complex issue and we’re trying to do something in the full spectrum,” she said. “That’s where older workers come into focus. We look at other age groups to recruit into the profession.”

Older workers who may have retired or lost jobs or can’t find jobs in their field are prime targets for nursing education. Jones says the healthcare industry is working to make nursing education available to all age groups.

Hospitals are also encouraging older nurses to remain on the job by identifying positions that are not as physically demanding, offering flexible and shorter shifts, and by making sure they have nursing support in the way of aids, orderlies and licensed practical nurses.

“They’re also using older nurses to mentor and train young ones just coming into the profession,” Jones added. “Some nurses are willing to work part time. We’re seeing a little delay in retirements along with those who retire for a year then come back to work. Maybe they took time to travel and do other things, and then they’re bored and want to return to nursing.”

Dr. Brian Reithel, dean of the School of Business Administration at the University of Mississippi, sees a trend of more people beginning new careers later in life, particularly since 2001.

“The boom in second-career entrepreneurship and embarking on solo careers is really growing,” he said. “For our parents that notion was seen much less frequently. Now people are re-defining who they are and what they want to get out of life.”

He thinks this trend is partly driven by better health, increased life expectancy and an increased standard of living in the U.S. “There are abundant opportunities in that environment if a person is willing to step out,” he added.

Reithel also sees companies restructuring themselves as global competition increases, wanting to take advantage of the incredible skills and talent that are available with people in their 50s and 60s. Employers may well ask what these individuals can do to help make business more competitive.

“There’s an amazing opportunity for employers to use these skills and talents. We have a generation of people more aware of global realities,” he said. “They’re better educated and better equipped to do many things.”

Logue says there’s still not nearly enough going on with businesses as the workforce in Mississippi grows older. “They need to be aware and know this is coming,” she said. “Employers should weigh the costs of retirement and not make automatic assumptions about older workers. There’s no hard evidence that older workers cost more or are slowing down.”

Employers could encourage retiring employees to stay on and everyone would benefit, she feels. “Intelligent employers these days want to take a close look at that option,” she said. “Many retirees want to stay on or return to work. We see people retire at age 62 and find they’re still active and bored or they may not have enough income.”

She hopes employers will get rid of age stereotypes and use creative thinking. “They’re making automatic assumptions,” she said. “They will be surprised down the road and jobs will be wanting.”

Early retirement reduces the economy’s pool of experienced workers, in turn affecting the quantity and quality of outputs of goods and services, Logue points out.

“Reduced work by older workers lowers aggregate contributions to employers’ pension plans while simultaneously increasing expenditures from those plans,” she said. “Hence, the burden on younger workers to support retirees increases.”

In 2008, the first of 79 million Baby Boomers will qualify for Social Security at age 62. Three years later, the first boomers will become eligible for Medicare. Both systems face serious financial shortfalls, largely caused by people working a shorter time and living longer.

Phased retirement may be part of the answer to a shortage in the workforce as some employees are able to modify their full-time work status in some fashion before full retirement. According to a study done by the AARP, phased retirees are better educated, have greater household wealth and income, are more likely to be managers and in white-collar, highly-skilled positions, and are less likely to face constraints on reducing hours and less likely to participate in a defined benefit pension plan. They are also more likely to have a positive view of work.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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