Keeping Older Workers on the Job

An HR executive explains why his company wants older workers to stay and mentor younger workers.


Companies that fear a shortage of qualified workers are trying to entice older workers to stay on the job longer. The Los Angeles-based defense and technology corporation Northrop Grumman is exploring innovative ways to keep baby boomers at their desks and get them to teach younger workers their vital skills. I recently spoke with Ian Ziskin, chief human resources and administrative officer for Northrop Grumman, about how he balances new hires with older worker retention. Excerpts:

How much of your workforce is planning to retire in the next decade?

If you look at the demographics of the workforce for Northrop Grumman, which are pretty consistent with the demographics of the aerospace and defense industry in general, we have about 122,000 employees, approximately 50 percent of whom are going to be able to retire over the next five to 10 years. Why do you want older workers to continue to work longer?

This company is moving into a mode where we want to encourage more people to stay if it fits with their life plan. We're in a situation where it's beneficial for employees who wish to stay longer, and it's beneficial to the company to make them want to stay, assuming they have the right skills. The number of people qualified to fill engineering and technical positions that require a good, strong background in engineering and mathematics is a shrinking population of people that many companies are competing for. Are you having difficulty finding enough qualified workers to replace the employees who are retiring?

We hire quite a few new people each year. We've had a lot of success hiring really good people, but it's always a challenge. The number of people who are coming out of school with the required math and science skills that we need in order to do the kind of work we do is shrinking. One of the challenges that Northrop Grumman and the aerospace and defense industry have is we generally require security clearance, which by definition means that they have to be U.S. citizens. It is better for the company to retain older workers or hire younger and cheaper people?

Like any company, you always have to have the appropriate balance with those who are coming in brand new. The people who are at the later part of their career certainly have the more in-depth technology knowledge that we need to serve customers. We're going to continue to hire new people into the company. We tend to hire somewhere between 14,000 and 15,000 new people every year, and that's going to continue. Are there any programs in place to facilitate the transfer of knowledge between older and younger workers?

There's an opportunity to retain some of those workers longer who might have an interest in doing so and transfer knowledge to others behind them. We've asked those near retirement to help coach and mentor others who are coming behind them. Those programs—while effective where they exist, there aren't enough of them. Our plans over the next few years are to expand them. What incentives to keep older workers are you likely to implement?

What I think you will see going forward is making sure that the work assignment that we're asking our more senior people to take on continues to be very challenging and also asking them to take on more mentoring and coaching knowledge transfer roles, which, in some cases, they can do directly in the jobs that they are in. There will be more flexible work practices with regard to scheduling. People might work from home occasionally, work a part-time schedule, or work a schedule that is a little bit more concise as they ease their way into retirement. What types of retirement questions do employees most often ask HR about?

First and foremost, the question they ask is, "Can I really afford to retire?" which is not a question that we [can] answer. What we do is provide them with the information they need about their anticipated pensions and payments and other information related to the retirement process or direct to them to a financial adviser to help them decide when they might be comfortable retiring. The other types of questions they come to us with have a lot more to do with the process of deciding what they are going to do with their time when they do retire, which is one of the things that leads me to believe we could put their talents and skills to good use. What advice do you have for a baby boomer who wants to work longer?

Make your aspirations to stay known if you are interested in continuing to work. Help companies like Northrop Grumman and others understand what is important to you in terms of challenging work and more flexible workplace preferences that would make you want to continue to work.