Help! My Boomers Are Retiring!
by Wally Bock
Next time you've got a bunch of senior managers in a room together, ask those who are eligible to retire within five years to leave the room. Then figure out how you're going to replace them.
That's an exercise I've done with senior management in a client company. A full third of the senior people in that room were eligible to take their pension and go within five years.
This is not just a problem in the executive suite. Check out the senior people in sales. Check out the team leaders for key craft functions, the people who usually came up through union apprentice programs.
There are several definitions of the Baby Boom and they all vary a little. But you're safe if you assume that it's people born between 1946 and 1964. In America, that's about 79 million people.
The oldest boomers hit sixty in 2006. In 2011 they'll start hitting sixty-five.
I call their exit "The Boomer Brain Drain." It's not likely that they'll all retire when they can and they certainly won't retire all at once, but enough of them could start heading for the exits soon enough that you'd better know how you're going to deal with the Brain Drain in your organization.
There are three things that make this a difficult problem for you. They are lead times, pipelines, and human complexity.
If you need a graduate engineer to fill an entry level position in 2011, when a senior Boomer engineer retires and people bump up the pipeline, that graduate engineer needs to be in college today. The same is true for skilled craft positions where people come through an apprenticeship program.
The people in the pipeline now constrain what you can do with people replenishment in the short term. In the long term, finding enough engineers and craft workers will be a problem that needs to be tackled by the whole industry or country.
Note, though that the overall number of people in the pipeline is less than the number of people who could be retiring. That's because the generations following the Baby Boom are smaller.
This shortage is even greater in several key kinds of work. The number of people getting engineering degrees has been falling for years. So has the number of people in apprenticeship programs.
People are not interchangeable parts. That's a joy for most of us most of the time, but it can create problems for you as your Boomers start to leave.
Bill's a guy that everyone likes. He's easy to talk to. He's good at what he does in the distribution part of his company. When people have a problem, they call Bill, and he almost always knows who to call or what to do to help.
Kaye's been in the same clerical job for over twenty years. She's good at what she does. People know that Kaye's the one to call if you've got an administrative problem. She knows who to talk to at headquarters to set things right. She also knows just how far you can stretch the limits of any company policy.
When Bill or Kaye retire, you can fill their position, but you can't really replace them. Bill's problem solving ability has developed over years. So has Kaye's knowledge of policy and headquarters staff. And they both have relationships that are impossible for any newcomer. When they leave that special knowledge and those relationships go with them.
So what should you be doing? Start by doing what I call a "Threat Assessment." Take a look at every position in your company. Concentrate on the ones where the incumbent is eligible to retire soon. Evaluate your ability to fill the slot with a qualified person.
Then put together a task force to take a long term view of the situation. You'll find that solutions to the Boomer Brain Drain fall into three basic areas.
Some solutions will be Human Resources (HR) solutions. These include improved recruiting and succession planning.
You may decide that you want to allow some people to work beyond their retirement date or to return to work after retiring. That may mean you need to adjust pension and retirement rules.
You may also need to make adjustments to increase flexibility for your "retired" workers and you may need to change some materials and equipment to make them easier for older workers to use. If you've got union workers, you'll need to negotiate with the unions.
Consider some business process changes to meet the threat of the Boomer Brain Drain. By streamlining processes or eliminating some steps altogether you may be able to maintain excellent performance with fewer people.
Investigate equipment issues, too. By simplifying and standardizing equipment, you may be able to achieve similar results with fewer workers or increase your scheduling flexibility. If part of your plan involves having more older workers, make sure that equipment and support materials are comfortable for them to use.
Finally consider some technological solutions to knowledge retention. Artificial intelligence, smart systems, and Knowledge Management (KM) are appropriate for some larger companies.
Companies of all sizes should look for ways to use technology to help people do a better job of knowledge sharing, learning, and problem solving. Social networking systems can help people find experts. Simple discussion systems can facilitate the sharing of shoptalk and the learning that goes with it.
The blanket that overlays all of this is culture. As you make changes in procedures and in the mix of people and technology in your workplace, you need to pay attention to your culture.
Culture, in the classic Deal and Kennedy definition, is "the way we do things around here." Culture is the way you think about older workers. Culture is the things you reward and the things you only notice. If you change your workplace and the mix of people in it, you will almost certainly need to change your culture.
In the end you need an integrated system to deal with the threat of massive Baby Boomer retirements and the potential Boomer Brain Drain. You need to assess your situation. You need to use a mix of human resources and business process changes. You need to make judicious use of technology and you must factor culture into the mix.
Wally Bock helps organizations improve productivity and morale and create integrated solutions to the problem of the Boomer Brain Drain. He writes the Three Star Leadership blog (http://blog.threestarleadership.com/), coaches individual managers, and is a popular speaker at meetings and conferences. Ask for Wally's white paper on dealing with Baby Boomer retirements (http://www.threestarleadership.com/bbdwhitepaperrequestform.htm).
Wally Bock may be contacted at http://www.threestarleadership.com/ or firstname.lastname@example.org