Why US firms are desperate to retain ageing workers

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When Roger Klug told his employer he was retiring, there was a shiver of panic among the bosses. Now 70 years old, Mr Klug is in his 47th year at Alexandria Industries, an aluminium company in rural Minnesota.

After almost five decades manufacturing industrial products for such diverse industries as solar power and defence, the company could ill-afford to lose Mr Klug’s expertise.

Like a number of US states, Minnesota has a labour shortage – specifically a skills shortage – and seeing his valuable experience disappear overnight would have left Alexandria’s management with big shoes to fill.

According to the US Department of Labor, since March 2018 US monthly job vacancies have outnumbered unemployed job seekers. As the baby boomers reach retirement, it seems there are not enough millennials in the jobs pipeline ready to step in.

“We have a labour shortage and it’s going to be a problem for the next couple of decades as the boomers leave the workforce,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

So, one answer for companies struggling to find staff is to ask workers like Mr Klug to put off retirement. He did.

Roger Klug
Roger Klug is passing on his knowledge to a new generation of workers

“I only work two days a week, and I wanted to do something after I retired and it was just a no-brainer to stay. It’s not about the money. I enjoy the work,” he says.

Mr Klug still turns out high precision parts at Alexandria, and also fills in on other jobs at the company when necessary. But a key role is to pass on his skills to a new generation of staff at the company. It’s a trade-off that suits both sides. Mr Klug gets to stay active; Alexandria Industries gets valuable training for new workers.

It does mean, though, that companies have to incentivise their mature employees through flexible hours, healthcare benefits, and keeping wages competitive.

“Our biggest challenge is the ability to staff the organisation so we can grow the business,” says Lynette Kluver, Alexandria Industry’s director of organisational development.

Lynette Kluver
Image captionLack of skilled staff could hold back expansion, says Alexandria Industries’ Lynette Kluver

But it’s not just the skills shortage that has extended the job prospects for ageing workers. Some employers seem to prefer them.

At Johnson & Sons, a florist in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Tom Johnson employs people ranging from ages 16 to 86.

He has nothing but praise for the older workers, even running job adverts targeted at the baby boomer generation. For a start, Mr Johnson says, older employees are more reliable.

“They don’t have kids to take care of or hectic social lives,” he says. And his elderly new recruits bring with them valuable experience from other fields.

Johnson & Sons’ oldest employee is Tom Slagerman, who does a variety of maintenance roles and helps wrap the flower bouquets. Aged 86, he used to own a print shop, but could not continue after suffering cancer.

Mr Slagerman said it took four to five years for him to feel well enough to return to work. His wife thought he was crazy for applying for a job at his age. But the work is fun and “keeps me active”.

He and Mr Klug are far from unique. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates people aged 55 and older are expected to have the fastest growing labour force participation rate – that is, in work or actively seeking work – over the next five years. And within this age group, those aged 65 and above are expected to see the fastest expansion.

But despite the growth in opportunities for older workers, it’s not just about “staying active” or companies’ wanting to retain skills. Regardless of the expanding US economy, the reality is that many baby boomers who wish to retire simply cannot afford to.

Andreé Flageolle
Like a lot of elderly people, Andreé Flageolle continues to work because she needs the mony

Andreé Flageolle, 74, another elderly Johnson & Sons employee loves the job, but admits that she’s there because she needs the money.

Ms Flageolle, a nurse for many years, says her social security payment is enough to cover her rent, but leaves her little to pay for utilities and other monthly expenses.

She supplements her income with another part time job, at a company helping the elderly to remain independent and stay in their homes.

Still, the jobs are a labour of love, and Ms Flageolle particularly likes being around the younger workers at Johnson & Sons.

“I think that the mix really energises things and keeps you on your toes. Plus, I’ve found they teach me things, and I teach them. So, it’s reciprocal,” she said.

And that touches on another benefit of keeping elderly people in the workforce. “We know that multiple generations working together can lead to more creative thinking and innovation”, says Cal Halvorsen, assistant professor at the Boston College School of Social Work.

A woman uses her mobile phone in front of a LED display board of Huawei at Beijing International Consumer Electronics Expo in Beijing on July 9, 2018.
Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES

China’s Huawei, the tech giant under scrutiny for its alleged links to the Chinese government, has become caught up in a controversy surrounding the representation of Taiwan.

Huawei has come under fire for allegedly implying in its smartphone settings that Taiwan is independent.

Despite a backlash on social media, Huawei has declined to comment.

It is the latest firm – and an unexpected one – to get caught up in this kind of controversy.

Global brands such as Versace, Coach, Givenchy, and Swarovski all faced similar criticism this week

It comes at a time of heightened sensitivities, as Hong Kong has faced weeks of unrest, with pro-democracy protestors clashing with police.

‘Outrageous’

Until now, Huawei has been in the spotlight for allegedly posing a national security risk, which the firm denies.

But now users on Chinese social media Weibo have expressed anger that Taiwan was listed as its own country when the default language in Huawei’s smartphone setting was set to traditional Chinese – the script used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Mainland China mostly uses simplified Chinese.

“This is outrageous. This is how Huawei repays China?” one user said on Weibo.

While some users said the issue had been fixed, many remained angry that the company had failed to address the issue publicly.

“Are you just ignoring [this] and [you’re] not going to explain why this happened? As a user of Huawei products… I am disgusted,” one user said.

Huawei saga

It is a new kind of controversy for Huawei, which for months has been under scrutiny for its alleged close links with China’s government.

The US blacklisted the firm in May saying it posed a national security risk.The company vehemently denies this and has repeatedly said it is independent from the Chinese government.

Huawei has also come to symbolise the tensions between the US and China that have been playing out in trade and, more recently, the technology sector.

The US has targeted Huawei with trade restrictions, while also pushing to persuade allies to ban the Chinese company over the potential risks of using its products in next-generation 5G mobile networks.

Thomas Cook in £750m rescue deal talks

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Thomas Cook store
Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Troubled travel company Thomas Cook is in £750m rescue talks with banks and its largest shareholder, Fosun.

It launched a strategic review in February, but since then, dwindling bookings and uncertainty surrounding Brexit have contributed to a deterioration in the market. In March, the firm announced plans to close 21 stores, costing more than 300 jobs, and in May, it revealed a £1.5bn half-year loss.

Thomas Cook said it was trying to combat those challenges with a “rigorous focus on cost” and by “delivering a stronger holiday offering to customers through high quality, higher-margin hotels”.

The travel firm – which has 9,000 employees in the UK – had already announced plans to slash costs, axing 150 roles from its head office in Peterborough, in the face of tough trading conditions and higher fuel expenses.

On Friday, Thomas Cook said the European travel market had become “progressively more challenging” as it painted a bleak picture for the second half of the year, blaming an “uncertain customer environment” for “intense competition”.

That has hit the firm’s finances and made it difficult to sell its airline or tour business to generate some cash.

As a result, the group has been forced to enter into talks with its banks and Fosun, which will own a significant majority of the travel company’s tour operator and a large minority stake in its airline if the deal goes ahead.

Is it a good deal?

Mr Fankhauser told the BBC’s Today programme that “considering all options we had on the table”, the deal was the “best available” choice.

Responding to a suggestion that the proposed deal was a last resort, he said: “This is a very good option to secure the business and to put the business on a solid financial foot for the future.”

Earlier, in a statement issued by Thomas Cook, Mr Fankhauser said: “While this is not the outcome any of us wanted for our shareholders, this proposal is a pragmatic and responsible solution which provides the means to secure the future of the Thomas Cook business for our customers, our suppliers and our employees.”

What about shareholders?

Thomas Cook said people who currently hold shares in the firm would see the value of their investment “significantly diluted” as a result of the proposed deal.

“Basically, it’s wipe out time” for shareholders, according to Markets.com analyst Neil Wilson.

But Thomas Cook said existing shareholders may be given the option to reinvest in the firm, alongside Fosun, to become creditors.

The proposed rescue deal may even indicate a potential retreat from the stock market for Thomas Cook, in a move that would see the world’s oldest package holiday firm become a private company.

Shares were trading down by about a third on Friday, at just under 9p apiece. The company’s stock price has shed more than 90% of its value in the past year.

What is Fosun?

Fosun is a £74.4bn Chinese investment giant that is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange. The firm already has an 18% stake in Thomas Cook, but if this deal goes ahead, it would gain a “significant majority” of the firm.

Fosun’s portfolio of companies runs the gamut from insurers to football clubs. It says it operates in three major segments: “health, happiness and wealth”.

The investor said it had “extensive experience” in the global travel industry.

“We are committed investors, with a proven track record of turning around iconic brands, including Club Med and Wolverhampton Wanderers FC,” it said.

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