What To Do About Employment “Brain Drain”?

A bunch of our most senior workers are preparing to retire in the next few years, and I’m frankly worried about what’s going to happen to our company when they’re gone. They possess years of experience and know-how that we have no idea how we’re going to replace, and new hires are harder and harder to come by these days—even in this crummy economy. Any suggestions for us? What’s working for other companies?
Mandy in Pasadena

Mandy, you’re not alone. By 2010, more than 64 million baby boomers will be at or close to retirement age. That’s 40 percent of the workforce. Second, the group now in their 30s and 40s that will replace those retirees is about 10 percent smaller than the workforce it will replace.

Bottom line: The coming “brain drain” is a classic employment squeeze play. To make it through, you’re going to have to find ways to hold on to your senior people longer, grab a larger share of the talented younger group than your competitors, or do both. Fortunately, HR professionals are developing solutions at both ends of the spectrum.

Keeping Senior Workers On

To hold onto their older workers, companies are thinking beyond traditional higher salaries and retention bonuses and beginning to recognize the concept of “semi-retirement” This allows senior workers to set work schedules that permit some of the freedoms of retirement while keeping the pay and benefits of employment.

One Florida firm, TriQuint Semiconductor, has instituted such a plan. “There’s a mutual benefit,” says Sunder Gopani, a 25-year veteran with the company. “They retain my expertise and I get a schedule that gives me time to travel.”

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The ultimate extension of this principle—6 months on the job, 6 months off—has also been launched by some companies. And “on the job” can sometimes mean “off the site.” Many employees are happy to e-mail reports and evaluate analyses while sipping fruity drinks by the beach.

Recruiting Younger Workers

Meanwhile, employers have ramped up their recruitment efforts among younger workers, seeking candidates where they congregate, on Internet employment and professional sites and craigslist.org, the popular electronic classified ad service.

When promising candidates are found, the lures put forward must be specific to their generation. “Baby boomers wanted a big office, big title and a big paycheck,” says Donna Long, an employment advisor. “A big paycheck may not be enough for [the next generation].”

Younger candidates seek employment satisfaction and work-life balance as much as they do superior compensation, the experts say, and in any case, they cannot be expected to stay at one job their entire working lives. Some projections are that the typical younger worker will have 20 jobs before he or she retires.

“They view a job as just that and not a career,” says Dr. Larry Rosen, an author who’s written on technology and the generation it spawned. “Either the job is shaped in a way that utilizes their expertise, or they won’t stick around.”