Before the recession kicked into high gear, officials at Cornell University faced an imminent staffing problem: retiring baby boomers. "We started out the year expecting a very high level of turnover," says Mary Opperman, the university's vice president for human resources. Instead, they got an economic tsunami. The school saw its endowment plunge 27 percent during the 2009 fiscal year. Officials soon had a very different problem: They needed to cut jobs.
Through a series of open forums, staff and faculty were afforded a clear look into Cornell's financial situation, and when the school rolled out an early-retirement incentive program, 400 employees volunteered. "We were very open about the fact that we wanted our oldest workers, who might be interested in moving on, to have a chance to choose to do so before we had to look to layoffs," Opperman says. "It was sort of typical of the Cornell community. We had a number of people who said ... 'If I go, someone who's in a different place in their career can stay.' That's the sort of giveback you get when you recognize the value of your workforce."
Cornell would know. The university is tops among the AARP's 2009 Best Employers for Workers Over 50—the second time in a row the Ithaca, N.Y., university has snagged the No. 1 spot. Overall, the Best Employers list is a large cross section of fields. Universities, insurers, pharmaceutical companies, staffing firms, the YMCA of Greater Rochester, N.Y., Avis Budget Car Rental, and the City of Glendale, Ariz., all made the top 50, culled from more than 200 applications (in which employers answered questions about their workplace policies and practices). Most surprising on this list may be Intel, No. 44, which suggests that even technology companies are not just seeking young talent but also embracing experience.
Cheap perks. Much of what the AARP considers in compiling the list may seem best suited for a tighter labor market and better economy: training and career development; recruiting practices; health and retirement benefits; and work options, such as job sharing and flexible scheduling. But Deborah Russell, the AARP's director of workforce issues, says companies still value being seen as an employer of choice—even at a time when they may not be hiring. And while some perks have disappeared, benefits like flexible schedules have stuck around. "It doesn't cost money to offer people flexible work schedules," Russell says. "Maybe it's cheaper to have people work remotely and save on energy."
Many of the employers on the list seem to have created workplaces where older workers feel at home. At the National Institutes of Health, for example, many employees work years past the time they are eligible to retire. Workers at the federal agency can take part in an in-house philharmonic, a fencing club, a biking club, and various lectures and symposiums. First Horizon, a financial services company, doesn't hesitate to hire older workers who will bring a greater breadth of experience to a position. Ken Bottoms, a senior vice president, was hired five years ago and is now just shy of 64. He can point to other recent hires who may have a few gray hairs. "We try to get the best talent we can," Bottoms says.
This year, for the first time, AARP compiled a second Best Employers list consisting solely of hospitals and healthcare facilities. In past years, healthcare providers have filled up many spots on the Best Employers list, in part because of the industry's outsize reliance on older workers in the face of staffing shortages in many positions. (This may be less of a problem in the coming years than anticipated. While the recession has delayed the retirement of many workers, it may also have opened many younger people's eyes to the pragmatic benefit of joining an industry in need.)
Know-how. The healthcare industry may also rely especially heavily on older workers because it prizes technical and institutional knowledge and experience. At Atlantic Health of Morristown, N.J., which took the top spot among healthcare providers, the average tenure of employees is about 14 years. "We certainly value the experience level and the experience itself that individuals can gain here in our system, and we certainly don't want to lose that because of an age factor," says Andrew Kovach, Atlantic's vice president of human resources. The company runs two hospitals in northern New Jersey—Morristown Memorial Hospital and Overlook Hospital—and various other healthcare facilities, including a new emergency room in Union, N.J.
The healthcare sector has benefited from an aging baby boomer population, which has pushed up demand for its services even in a recession. The healthcare and social assistance sector has added more than a half-million jobs since December 2007, according to Labor Department data. Atlantic, for instance, has added staff for its new emergency room and its new Gagnon Cardiovascular Institute, which opened earlier this year. Atlantic even taps retired workers through its "1,000 Hour Club," which allows retirees to work up to 999 hours in a year and retain their retirement benefits.
Employers in other fields have launched similar initiatives. The federal stimulus package spurred a sudden uptick in staffing needs at government agencies. The NIH earlier this year sent out a letter asking recent retirees if they'd be interested in coming back for a temporary period. "We needed people who were experienced and knew how the system works," says Philip Lenowitz, deputy director of human resources at NIH. About a quarter of those who received the letter responded in the affirmative. And back at Cornell, school officials are working to create an employment service that would find retirees paid work at the school and in the community to augment their pensions. After all, those 400 workers who opted for the retirement incentive took 11,000 years of experience with them—simply too much to let go.