By Corita Brown, Next Avenue Contributor
“People are always asking me, ‘Why do you hire people over 60 to be on your team?’” says Angela Bovill, CEO of Ascentria Care Alliance, a New England-based organization that provides wraparound services for vulnerable children and families. She has a ready answer.
“Having older people on staff creates a calming force for an organization,” says Bovill. “There is less panic. They have seen a lot and are less jittery, less anxious than they may have been earlier in their career.”
A recent survey offers compelling proof of the value of hiring, and having, older workers. What’s more, the survey data from the Second Acts for Strong Communities Initiative suggests that intentionally including older adults as part of the workforce can change the attitudes of organizational staff and leadership about that value older people bring.
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Second Acts is a three-year initiative at nine demonstration sites within the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities (a strategic action network of social sector organizations). The pilot sites, including Bovill’s Ascentria Care Alliance, implemented a range of strategies for engaging and leveraging older
adult talent within the organization as volunteers, staff or both.
Views Before Bringing On Older Workers and After
Twice in two years, the initiative asked organizational staff for their views on four statements about 50+ workers. Their opinions were markedly higher after they had brought them into their workforce and seen their usefulness:
50+ talent will help our organization meet its mission.
Year One: 47%
Year Two: 76%
50+ talent will contribute to the sustainability of their organization.
Year One: 39%
Year Two: 73%
Our organization will be better able to serve our community because of 50+ talent.
Year One: 50%
Year Two: 86%
50+ talent will help our organization better reach its intended audience.
Year One: 49%
Year Two 78%
3 Reasons for Changed Perception of Older Workers
What accounts for the striking shift in perception? Bovill, and other members of the national initiative, suggest three contributing factors
1. Hiring Encore Fellows: Each demonstration site hired an Encore Fellow, an older, experienced professional contributing skills in a part-time role to the organization to provide leadership on the project. The Fellows also suported the recruitment and placement of additional older adult talent.
The most effective Encore Fellows recognized that their success required working within organizational culture, while also working to change it.
Laura Melvin, director of human resources at Lad Lake, describes how Encore Fellow Harry Muir approached culture change:
“Harry is humble and understands the culture and context that was there before he got there. He is patient and figures out how to work within our culture to achieve his goals. That makes staff more receptive to his ideas. For example, he spent time listening and observing our meetings, talking to the staff and finding out about their work. By doing this, he was able to offer suggestions on how to change the structure of our meetings and how to make the older volunteers and the staff more comfortable.”
2. Creating a cohort: Many of the pilots that engaged volunteers 50+ brought them together as a group so they could develop relationships with, and support, one another. Bovill describes the cohort design like this:
“It gave them another tribe… For a group sometimes feeling left out and devalued, this was critical. This support network made them more resilient in working with clients and program staff. The strength they developed among themselves helped build their credibility; they became a force to be reckoned with! This was much more powerful than if we had engaged them individually.
3. Building on success: By starting small, staff members who were more skeptical about engaging adults 50+ were able to quickly see tangible benefits.
“This work is changing the thinking of our staff,” Bovill says, “from thinking volunteers are a burden…to rather seeing them as an opportunity.”
After watching these shifts in perception, Bovill and her team are exploring how to integrate older adults into both their volunteer and paid workforce, and scaling the work across the organization. She notes: “We have to equip the organization with the tools and and training to leverage this resource.”
Seeing Older Workers as a Solution
Bovill often hears from people having a hard time finding qualified staff, which baffles her. “How are people not seeing older workers as a solution? How are people not pursuing this? We have an opportunity sitting right in front of us!” she says.
And that opportunity will be growing. By 2024, 25% of workers will be 55 or older. Finding new ways to make the most of an increasingly intergenerational workforce is in everyone’s interest.