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Right, Cade White, operator, and Randy Corder, reliability improvement program implementer, at Agrium Inc.’s Conda Phosphate Operations. (Agrium)
Right, Cade White, operator, and Randy Corder, reliability improvement program implementer, at Agrium Inc.’s Conda Phosphate Operations. (Agrium)

Moving Forward

Older workers’ knowledge is walking out the door Add to ...

We explore 10 key challenges for business leaders in 2014, with expert commentary on the issues.

When Rob Pypers says he’s retired, his friends just laugh. That’s because after working 30 years for Agrium Inc., a Calgary-based retailer and producer of agricultural products and fertilizers, and officially retiring in 2010, the 64-year-old has been rehired three times on a short-term basis for maintenance turnarounds at the company’s Redwater, Alta., facility. And he’s going back a fourth time.

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Since Agrium brought in flexible retirement options in 2009, the company has been rehiring retired workers. Like any other organization facing an aging demographic and skills shortages, the company was concerned about transferring the institutional knowledge base if there was a mass exodus of baby boomers. So it wanted to plan how it could retain potential retirees for a longer time and bring back retired employees during times where it needed specialized skills. At the same time, with the repeal of mandatory retirement at 65, many older workers wanted to continue working in some way.

“People need to feel useful,” says Stella Cosby, Agrium’s senior director of total rewards. “Not everyone is ready to retire at 55, or 70 for that matter. It keeps the retirees young and active when they’re engaged with the company.”

She sees the program as benefiting both employees who want to return and the company, because older employees can share their knowledge and mentor new people around them. To qualify, retired employees must be over 55 and have had a minimum of a month’s break in service. Rehired retirees continue collecting their pensions as well as being paid at their last salary rate plus any raises they would have received. The average job is for two to six months, but it can be up to a year. Rather than being matched one on one, most often a retiree comes back as a leader working with a team of full-time employees.

“At Agrium, 70 per cent of your development is on the job,” says Ms. Cosby. “It’s hands on. It’s hard to learn some of these specialized skill areas until you actually do the work. These retirees have deep knowledge of the equipment, the plants and the people.”

Either the employee can make the decision to phase in retirement or a supervisor or manager can approach a retired employee, offering flexible terms. Mr. Pypers takes Thursdays off to be with his grandchildren and tailors his hours to avoid traffic. Because of his specialized skills in the scheduling software for plant shutdowns, Mr. Pypers was wooed back to work.

“There aren’t many people with my skill sets,” Mr. Pypers says. “Last time, I was the head scheduler. They’ll have two or three other schedulers in at the same time and we’ll discuss what we’re doing. I make notes on the changes that should be made and pass the information on.”

Managing its workforce through recruitment so it doesn’t have a big bubble retiring at the end has also been a deliberate part of Agrium’s strategy over the past eight years. The company’s demographics show that the ages of its workforce is evenly distributed. According to Ms. Cosby, 5 per cent are under 25; 20 per cent are between 25 and 34; 23 per cent are between 35 and 44; 26 per cent are between 45 and 55; and 26 per cent are 55 and older.

“More than 50 per cent of our hires are between 25 and 44 years of age – so we’ve got people in place to back up as others are leaving,” says Ms. Cosby. “Also 11 per cent of new hires are over 55 years of age, so we’re accessing the whole spectrum of the generations.”

Currently only about 10 Agrium retirees in Canada are taking advantage of the retirements option program, a small number, given that an estimated 3 per cent retired this year from its Canadian workforce of more than 2,200. Ms. Cosby would like to see more.

“We offer retirement planning for all employees but are targeting those 55 and older,” says Ms. Cosby. “We publicize the program on our intranet but need to get it out more.”

The experts weigh in

Gerard Seijts

Professor of organizational behaviour at Ivey Business School at The University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.

We learn from good leadership in action.

These people have a lot of wisdom and knowledge and once they leave that company, that wisdom or knowledge might not be codified in books and documents. The people are the knowledge. The knowledge goes up and down in the elevator, in and out of the building. When the person is gone, the knowledge is gone.

How can you impart that knowledge to other people? Agrium’s structured mentoring program could make a big difference in the lives of people trying to be a better manager or leader.

I would find those retirees who have an interest in mentoring. Not every person wants to be a mentor while others cherish mentoring the more junior people. Then ask who would like to be matched up with a mentor. It should be voluntary. You can create the conditions, but you cannot force mentorship.

Three months is a little short for a good mentorship relationship to happen, but if people are open to it, learning can take place any time, any place, any moment.

Barbara Jaworski

Chief executive officer, Workplace Institute, a consulting firm that helps organizations develop older-workforce strategies, in Toronto

Most companies don’t have a co-ordinated older workforce strategy – one which incorporates training for their leadership about why and how to retain their older workers and how they could pass on knowledge by developing more of a collaboration with younger workers. We know that one third of organizations can’t deliver on their business strategy because they don’t have enough skilled people to do what they need to do. I think those connections really haven’t been made. Developing an older workforce strategy is key.

Organizations need to develop a workplace culture where it’s not taboo to talk about what your career path is going to be or what else you’d like to do, something older workers are often reluctant to discuss because they may become redundant or devalued in the company.

What some organizations have done is incorporate a discussion about retirement options into the manager’s performance review. That’s a way companies can make sure those issues are being discussed with the employee.

I’m impressed that Agrium has incorporated their overall strategy into their hiring so they’ve managed to have a proportion from every age group, which is quite interesting.

Expert commentary has been edited and condensed.

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