Factories to baby boomers: Please keep working!

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(This post originally appeared on The Washington Post)

Minnesota-based Ultra Machining Co. has been around for more than 45 years and performs precision manufacturing and engineering services for the medical, aerospace, and other industries. Business is doing well but with growth comes challenges. Like many manufacturers around the country, this family-owned firm is challenged with finding experienced people to perform the kind of specialized work so valued by their customers.  According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the industry will need 3.5 million more factory workers over and above what exists today.

Many of my clients worry about where they will all come from. For now, management at Ultra Machining’s strategy is simple, and growing in popularity: keep the older people working.

“We have discouraged workers from retiring,” Eric Gibson, the company’s president told Minnesota’s Star Tribune. “We need more qualified employees. We are short of good help.”  The company has three employees in their 70’s running high-powered robots, lathes and drills and as far as Gibson’s concerned, they can keep working as long as they want…and are able. “We’re thrilled to have them,” he said.

Although millennials (those aged 18-34) make up almost half of the U.S. workforce, most manufacturers are still very reliant on baby boomers. Research shows that 27 percent of manufacturing workers are over the age of 55.

Keeping those baby boomers productive is becoming a big priority nowadays for manufacturers of all sizes and who can blame them?  Boomers have experience and knowledge. They tend to be loyal. Best of all, many want to work. And companies are happy to comply. About 19 percent of factory employers like Ultra Machining “float the idea” of phased-in retirements, according to the Society for Human Resources Management–an increase of six percent from just four years ago.

To meet the needs of the older generation, manufacturers are offering flexible schedules, reduced work weeks, job sharing, mentoring or consulting. Some companies are even retrofitting their shop floors to move materials to more reachable places so that there’s less wear and tear on those geriatric knees and backs. A number of trucking firms have even made ergonomic changes to truck cabs so desperately needed drivers are comfortable and stick around, Jacquelyn James, a co-director at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work, told the Star Tribune.

Finding good people to help your company grow is a huge challenge this year. Like some manufacturers, maybe a few of those 78 million baby boomers nearing retirement could be your solution to that problem.

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