Dean Barber

Consider the Older Worker

In Uncategorized on December 11, 2011 at 12:49 pm

How, when and if we retire are hugely influenced by the times in which we live. Recessions  have a particularly nasty effect of decreasing our retirement savings, which prompts many of us Baby Boomers to want to work well past the age of 65.

For many Boomers who are saddled with debt and whose savings evaporated during the recent bust, retirement is simply not an option. So we press on with the belief that we will just have to work longer.

Between 2007 and 2010, the number of working Americans over 65 years old jumped 16 percent; while the number of under-65’s in the labor force shrank.

But recessions also mean for weak labor markets, which make work less rewarding and less available. That in turn also encourages older workers to retire. Faced with diminishing job prospects, they simply give up their quest for finding work.

The recent news that unemployment in October dropped from 9 percent to 8.6 should be mitigated by the fact that the decrease reflected a 278,000 gain in employment at the same time 315,000 Americans left the labor force. Left the labor force as in discouraged and stopped looking.

Ray Returns

Not my friend Ray. He is an older worker who gutted it out through an extended period of having no job. But this past week, Ray landed a job installing cabinetry in mobile homes in a plant six miles from his home.

With little education, Ray, 57, had been out of work for two years. His unemployment benefits had expired and the electricity shut off in his isolated cabin for six weeks. His dog, Cecil, didn’t seem to mind and remained happy, but it was gnawing at Ray.

Ray said his new job not only provides him some kind of financial footing, but restores his mental health and sense of dignity.

“You get beat down, depressed, wondering if you are of value to anyone. Even my thinking was getting blurred. I had a tape measure out and was measuring a board, and I couldn’t figure out what I was reading.”

Now Ray is happy along with Cecil.

Ray was in that 43 percentile group of the 13.3 million unemployed Americans that have been out of work for 27 weeks and more. But his nightmare finally ended.

Many workforce experts advocate retraining for unemployed, older workers. That makes a great deal of sense and I would certainly advocate it. But I’m not sure that it is always the right answer for everyone. The fact of the matter is that for many employers, a 55-year-old with a new degree is less attractive than a 25-year-old with the same degree.

If an employer can find somebody younger and cheaper, and there is a glut of them out there, why go with an experienced, more expensive older worker? Actually, there are plenty of reasons, but they are not always so obvious to a short-sighted employer.

The fact is that with age really does come wisdom and valuable experience. At the age of 57, that is the basis for my consulting business. I’ve learned some stuff that can help.

Keepers of the Flame

In the case of manufacturing, older skilled workers – such as those specialists in precision machining and industrial maintenance — are keepers of the flame so to speak, a deep reservoir of technical knowledge to be leveraged.

The scary part is that despite the overall trend for older workers to remain in the workforce, many of these highly skilled workers in manufacturing will nonetheless retire, leaving a skills gap for employers to face.

Of America’s 11 million manufacturing employees, 2.7 million (or 25 percent) are 55 years of age or older and likely to retire in the next 10 years. An October 2009 report by the Manufacturing Institute, Deloitte and Oracle showed that among companies involved in skilled production (machinists, craft workers and technicians), 51 percent reported shortages and saw increased shortages ahead as younger generations ignore the career potential of skilled manufacturing jobs.

Eat at Joe’s (My Shameless Plug)

I have to believe that if our nation is going to retain its mojo as a manufacturing giant, we are going to figure out a few things fast. One is to how to better retain or hold onto these older workers’ knowledge longer, offering them perks in some form or fashion, even if on a part-time basis.

The second is to do a better job in building a pipeline for the future in which we can demonstrate to young people that manufacturing is really a pretty good option for a career choice if you only put in the time and hard work to develop the proper and needed skills.

A Trifecta of Challenges.

In January 2010, the Pennsylvania Center for Advanced Manufacturing Careers published a report on the workforce challenges facing Pennsylvania’s advanced manufacturers. The report highlighted a trifecta of workforce realities — rising skill requirements, an aging workforce and the lack of a reliable talent pipeline for new workers.

Taken together, these are obstacles that must be surmounted if the United States is going to remain a competitive force in the global marketplace. By the way, I remain hopeful that we will come up with the needed remedies, as I believe that the undeniable facts are dawning on everyone – business, education, liberals, conservatives, Republicans and Democrats.

It’s clear that our skilled manufacturing workforce has aged steadily over the past decade. An estimated one-third of the Pennsylvania industrial maintenance and precision machining workforce in manufacturing is now over age 50.

Now consider for a moment what these people have learned over time. A master machinist will have experience in CNC and conventional machining of parts from a wide variety of materials, often into very small, intricate shapes. CNC programming entails using CAM software, such as SurfCam, whereas an experienced machinist will know how to operate CNC vertical mills, CNC lathes, Wire EDM, EDM Drill, 4 axis (full contouring A axis) and 5 axis (tilting B with rotary C axes).

Machinists receive blueprints, charts or plans of a specified project and must interpret and visualize what the outcome will look like. They take a drawing and then machine a raw piece of metal to create a working part to meet precise specifications. To say that machinists are very knowledgeable is an understatement.

So let us not let this huge reservoir of knowledge among these older skilled workers go to waste. Some how, some way these people must be utilized to pass along their great knowledge to a new generation.

Are computers the key?

More and more, I am starting to think that computers are or can be the great equalizer for older workers. Over 66 percent of the jobs in the U.S. use computers. To remain employable, baby boomers need to embrace computer skills and technology.

I have a friend who was until recently the president of a large economic development organization. This man is quite talented and savvy in terms of running such an organization and the politics involved. But he is effectively computer illiterate. Email is about all he can handle and even that is a stretch for him.

Maybe my older friend would be more employable if he only had more functional computer skills. I don’t know. I’m not sure I have the answers. (Can you imagine a consultant actually saying such a thing? Well, I just did.)

Manufacturing employers are offering supplemental computer training to older workers in order to keep them on the job longer. They are also starting to focus on a work environment that caters to the needs of these older workers, including flextime where older workers are given more flexibility for leisure time.

In addition, employers are now creating or at least considering a workplace that is more conducive to the needs of older workers in terms of sight, hearing, and making hardware and software applications more accessible to them.

Yes, you can teach old dogs new tricks.

Geezer Startups

Finally, it would be appropriate for me to end this blog on a hopeful note. The fact is that older workers are becoming more entrepreneurial. Self-employment rises significantly with age. (Barber Business Advisors is proof of that.)

West Palm Beach, a retiree haven, also has the highest self-employment rate of any metropolitan area in the nation. Now reading that  raised an eyebrow for me.

Self-employment is particularly natural for older Americans, because it provides so much more control over working hours and conditions.

And may I add self-satisfaction and even fun.

Need a partner in results-oriented site selection? Contact me, Dean Barber, at 972-890-3733 or at Barber Business Advisors, LLC, is a site selection and economic development consulting firm in Plano, Texas. Please visit our website at

  1. Hello Dean,

    I recently had a customer that had to stop taking orders because he couldn’t fill a machinist position in his small operation. Frustrated, he went tot the local technical school to see if he could get one of the better students from the finishing class. His theory was that he would train someone that had the basics. He was told they had cancelled the machinist class two years ago due to the lack of students signing up for classes. Very sad

    The gap is already here, and I’m afraid it will only get wider. Great post. Take care.


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