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Taking advantage of Canada’s aging workforce

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May 4, 2012 by Andrew Snook

Canada’s workforce is getting older.

To remain competitive on the international stage, Canadian companies will need to learn to harness the knowledge, experience and talents of its aging workforce.

Ian Howcroft, vice-president, Ontario Division, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, discussed the topic of Canada’s aging workforce at Health and Safety Ontario’s Partners in Prevention 2012 Health and Safety Conference and Trade Show in his presentation, Is it still safe to climb the ladder? Preparing for an aging workforce.

“By 2021, one-quarter of the labour force could be 55 or over,” Howcroft said. “The senior citizen population is expected to more than double in the next 20 years.”

He said there is a dramatic shift taking place in regards to the numbers of workers in Canada compared to the number of retirees. By 2031, there will be less than three workers for every one retiree in Canada. In 1981, there were six workers for every one retiree. With this shift in worker-to-retiree ratio, all levels of government will feel an economic impact in the form of fewer taxpayers and reduced tax revenues, as well as slower economic growth, rising health costs and rising pension costs. Businesses will experience a similar economic pinch.

“Business is facing critical labour shortages,” Howcroft said. “People are retiring and taking their knowledge with them… it represents the collective wisdom of your business.”

In addition to the knowledge lost by workers retiring en masse, companies also lose the relationships these workers built over their years in their respective industries, and the opportunity to train younger workers to fill the leadership gaps left behind.

Howcroft said manufacturers in various sectors are already dealing with hiring challenges related to finding the necessary skilled labour within their sector, even while experiencing high levels of unemployment.

“The assets and contributions that older workers can make are something we need to look at,” he said.

He said finding young replacements for skilled tradespeople is particularly difficult. 

“We have the challenge of getting young people to think about a career in the trades.”

Fortunately, bringing back and retaining Canada’s older skilled workforce has some advantages that may not have existed in earlier generations – for example, the older segment of the country’s population is more active and healthy than in previous generations, so they are able to work longer.

Howcroft said many the older skilled trades workers choose staying at their jobs over retirement due to the combination of enjoying the work, social contact and being productive; of course, the current economic crisis is another big factor.

“There is a real financial need in many cases,” he explained.” Many people have pensions that are under water.”

Howcroft also cited rising education costs for people’s children entering college and university as another economic factor for staying in the workforce in one’s golden years.

Howcroft said Canada’s older workforce has to overcome various barriers in the workforce, such as ageism, stereotypes, being less inclined to embrace new technology (the group as a whole); in addition to the physical challenges of declines in strength, stamina, flexibility, vision, hearing and cognitive functions, and increased possibility of chronic health conditions.

However, Howcroft said the benefits that a company receives for retaining and bringing back its older workforce far outweigh any perceived negative impacts. In addition to being more experienced in their fields, older workers tend to be great independent problem solvers.

“They’ve been around a long time, they’ve seen a lot of things, they’re better at solving problems,” he said. “Take advantage of their expertise… they know the world of work.”

Howcroft also mentioned that older workers require less supervision, offer good work performance and reflect the country’s aging customer base, which could help to increase its market share.

“The workplace is getting older, but the population as a whole is getting older. It’s vital that companies look at what they’re competitive edge is… capitalizing on an aging workforce is vital.”

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