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Radhika Panjwani is a freelance writer from Toronto.

  • Many organizations will face acute scarcity of knowledge workers as 900,000 workers leave the work force over the next three years
  • Older workers have the functional knowledge, experience and skills to fill the knowledge gaps and help businesses thrive, but they’re being ignored, experts say

Owners of nearly a third of the new small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) in Canada are forecast to shutter their business within five years, owing to weak entrepreneurial culture, owners’ lack of critical skills, technological disruptions and rising costs, a Business Development Canada report notes.

This will add to the decline as Canada currently has 100,000 fewer business owners compared to 20 years ago. To help keep more small businesses in business, the report suggests owners lean on a mentor or coach, consider taking advantage of networking and community building opportunities and sign-up for courses.

David Smith, chief executive officer of, an Ontario-based talent sourcing platform for workers 45 and older, remains skeptical that the skills needed to run a successful enterprise can be learned in a classroom. The key, for him, is having a mentor or experienced person on staff to help owners with specific challenges.

Having founded four companies in Canada and the U.S., Mr. Smith is familiar with both the markets and says Canada doesn’t have a large pool of experienced owners to help fledgling businesses. But, he says there’s a workaround.

“A Knowledge economy needs to retain its knowledge workers or it risks losing its competitiveness,” Mr. Smith says. “We have a large cohort of older workers with functional expertise and skills. For instance, if a small or medium business is facing a marketing, technology adoption or financial issue, we have [workers over 45] who can provide targeted expertise to help them succeed. And this way, we can kick-start a stronger culture of entrepreneurship.”

The retirement brain-drain

As the Canadian labour market grapples with the retirement of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) and Gen X (born between 1965 and 1980), their exit will create a knowledge deficit in organizations, says Mike Shekhtman, senior regional director at recruiting firm Robert Half.

Presently, baby boomers account for 24.9 per cent of Canada’s population and Gen Xers make up for 29.5 per cent. It’s expected that some 900,000 workers will retire within the next three years, according to a note by TD Economics. TD Economics’ results show that this “greying effect,” will present a challenge for businesses to recruit and train new workers.

“We have individuals who have spent a long time with companies leaving the work force, and it’s important we harness their expertise,” Mr. Shekhtman said. “This is not only essential for our economy but for business continuity reasons.”

Canada’s SMEs are struggling to attract and retain talent. The issue has been exacerbated by recent work trends such as employees’ demanding remote work options, flexible hours and a greater emphasis on work-life balance. If companies aren’t offering these perks along with competitive salaries, it is difficult for them to attract and retain talent.

The skills shortage directly affects organizations’ ability to find qualified candidates for specific roles, leading to concerns about productivity and growth. He suggests companies leverage the experience and expertise of older workers by promoting multi-generational collaboration across the organization, valuing older workers’ professional and life experiences and building stronger teams around them.

“While compensation is important for baby boomers, there are alternative ways to retain professionals nearing retirement,” Mr. Shekhtman said. “Flexibility is key. Companies should allow them to create a work schedule that aligns with their personal life and one that helps in reducing stress and increasing job satisfaction.”

Age and experience

According to the BDC report, there are several reasons Canadian SMEs fail to scale: lack of market intelligence, a weak business plan, poor financial literacy and ineffective marketing strategy including sales and business development.

Entrepreneurs surveyed said they preferred to learn from peers and mentors. Older workers can fill in those gaps in knowledge, said Mr. Smith.

“We’re not aging like our parents did,” he said. “The ‘longevity dividend’ means many of us experience extended middle years of high productivity and not extra years of ill health at the end of our lives.”

Mr. Smith said retired workers’ can create value for organizations by:

  1. Offering subject matter expertise: Older workers have nuanced accumulation of knowledge, judgment and wisdom.
  2. Soft skills: The current labour market needs workers with communication, collaboration, listening, empathy skills that older workers have.
  3. Nurturing multi-generational teams: Experienced workers with leadership skills can make teams productive.
  4. Cost-effectiveness: Given their career arc and experience, many older professionals can be considered as a cost-effective source of talent, especially if they are allowed to work on their own terms. And because the focus is on knowledge transfer, businesses don’t have to pay them to do extensive proposals or undertake expensive projects, but can ask them for targeted strategy recommendations.

Bolstering entrepreneurship would however require overcoming ageism, Mr. Smith said.

“The term ‘age-friendly’ gets tossed around a lot now-a-days,” he said. “But I don’t like that term because it sounds like someone thinks they’re doing me a favour. I don’t need a favour. My hope is for businesses to become ‘age-agnostic,’ where someone’s age is immaterial, instead the focus is on the value they create.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • The Finns are the happiest people on earth and this story on CNBC highlights three commonly used phrases that capture the essence of Finnish mentality around satisfaction in the workplace.
  • Psychologist Albert Mehrabian coined the 7-38-55 rule 57 years ago, and this article on says its understanding can help with emotional intelligence, but it’s frequently misunderstood.
  • This piece in Lifehacker offers tips on how to practise mindfulness at work.

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