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ARCHIVED  November 19, 1999

Employers slow to recognize senior labor force

There was a time when opportunities for employment and recreation along the Front Range served as an irresistible magnet.

Employers not only had an ever-full pool of well-educated graduates from three major universities but also the promise that the West was the best. A bountiful labor pool allowed employers to focus on young, entry-level employees who could make few demands because of the surplus. Anyone with gray hair or less than glittering credentials could be passed over with impunity.

Now, as the ’90s wane, that pool begins to look more like a puddle, and opportunities for those who were passed over for purely cosmetic reasons seem to be improving.

“We identified the potential for a labor shortage six years ago,´ said Lew Wymisner, assistant director of the Larimer County Workforce Center, “but no one would take the predictions seriously. As a result, businesses continued to base their recruitment plans on the assumption that there would never be a labor shortage. There are recruitment models that take a tight labor market into account, but no one adopted them.”

From the employers’ perspective, the evaporating labor pool is cause for alarm. In fact, the business community has construed the shortage as a crisis. But a crisis for whom? Certainly not for those people seeking work.

“For those people who are looking for career changes, to go back to work, to move up or move around, this environment is ideal,” Wymisner said. “An employment shortage helps break down some discriminatory barriers that kept seniors, teens and welfare-to-work job seekers from finding suitable employment.”

While Wymisner does not see troops of retirees rising up to relieve Northern Colorado’s labor woes, he does view the environment as one in which a worker over 55 has a fighting chance for good part-time or full-time employment.

Roland Mower, president of the Fort Collins Economic Development Corp., said that to his knowledge there are no creative strategies in place to tap into the growing retirement community as a means to mitigate labor force shortages. In fact, it is probably true that an older professional would still find it difficult to compete in this tri-college area.

Judy Miller, employment specialist for the Larimer County Senior Employment Resource Center, puts the case more bluntly.

“There is age discrimination,” she said. “There is not supposed to be, but there is. Seniors want to work, but employers don’t want to pay them as much as they would pay a younger employee. They don’t realize the potential in this labor pool.”

“This population should be desirable to employers because of [its] old-fashioned work ethic,” added Shelley McGraw, program manager for the Larimer County Office on Aging. “The older worker is generally more dependable than a college student and more able to work on a schedule that suits the company rather than one that accommodates a class schedule.”

For the time being, however, older employees might be best viewed as niche employees, working with small, startup businesses that cannot afford full-time employees but do need extra hands.

The Larimer County Workforce Center and the Fort Collins Senior Center have identified that niche and are beginning to put in place strategies to match experienced, retired, workers both with small businesses and with corporations that have expressed an interest in hiring seniors. Often, these companies are looking for more mature workers to represent them to an older population with attractive disposable income.

Corporate America’s emerging interest in seniors suggests another phenomena at work beyond what may be a temporary labor shortage: the graying of America.

Michelle Miller, coordinator for the experienced worker program for Larimer County, asked the rhetorical question: “Does a senior shopper at Penny’s want to have a high-school student help her pick out an outfit? When Taco Johns offers its senior discounts, who should be taking the orders?”

Miller also pointed out that Schwan’s, a company that delivers prepared food, is actively recruiting seniors to make deliveries to other seniors. She explained that the company believes it is so important to have delivery people with whom their older customers are comfortable that it has made certain accommodations for its senior delivery staff.

“Seniors don’t have to stock their own trucks,” she said. “They can work fewer hours and receive full benefits. Their contribution is that important.”

The demographic shift also helped inspire the Older Adult Job Fair that took place at the Fort Collins Senior Center this October.

“We hope that this will become an annual event,´ said Steve Budner, recreation administrator for the center. “Among other things, retirees are looking for some additional money to support their lifestyle. The fair stressed the work force and volunteerism because this senior population is bright and aware and an incredible resource for this community. We have found good matches with hotels, fast food operations, big-box stores, health care agencies and temporary employment agencies.”

Miller noted that a variety of business needs can be served by a senior work force because people of retirement age, typically 55 years and older, seek either full or part-time employment for many different reasons.

“This is a diverse group,” she explained. “Some have low skills, are economically disadvantaged and must work. There are lots of widows and divorced women in this group. There are also older people who have been downsized out of jobs. Still another part of the picture are those people who retired with comfortable retirement benefits but without a plan to make use of all their free time.”

And so for the first time in a long time, seniors, whether independent or aided by county and state agencies, have an opportunity to secure good, personally gratifying employment. Whether or not the labor shortage should be construed as a crisis turns out to be simply a matter of perspective.

There was a time when opportunities for employment and recreation along the Front Range served as an irresistible magnet.

Employers not only had an ever-full pool of well-educated graduates from three major universities but also the promise that the West was the best. A bountiful labor pool allowed employers to focus on young, entry-level employees who could make few demands because of the surplus. Anyone with gray hair or less than glittering credentials could be passed over with impunity.

Now, as the ’90s wane, that pool begins to look more like a puddle, and opportunities for those who were passed over…

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