UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights

How to avoid a Baby Boomer brain drain

February 10, 2011 By Heather Harreld

maturebusinessmanThis post was written by Kip Kelly,  director of marketing at UNC Executive Development.

As aging baby boomers reach retirement age over the next two decades, many organizations face a potential mass exodus of their senior leaders. While the economic downturn may have delayed retirement for many baby boomers, these valued employees will retire eventually, taking with them a lifetime of knowledge and skills that are difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

As of Jan. 1, 2011, a baby boomer turns 65 every eight seconds – more than 7,000 per day. A recent Ernst and Young survey of Fortune 1000 companies found that 62 percent of employers believe future retirements will result in a labor shortage

Here are five steps to avoid the baby boomer brain drain and instead create a brain trust:

  • Analyze your strategic workforce
  • Refine your retention strategy
  • Identify, prioritize and engage potential retirees
  • Prepare senior and emerging leaders
  • Create Knowledge Transfer Opportunities

Analyze your workforce:

A strategic workforce analysis should be done internally to anticipate the effect of retirement over the next five and 10 years and beyond.

Questions for a strategic workforce analysis should include:

•          How many of your employees will become eligible to retire?

•          How many of your senior leaders will become eligible to retire?

•          How many skilled technical workers and individual contributors will become   eligible to retire?

•          How many front-line managers will become eligible to retire?

Do you have a succession plan in place for key positions that are most at risk?

Refine Your Retention Strategy

Although retirement is inevitable, keeping senior workers in the labor force a little longer will provide more time to transfer knowledge. Baby boomers, however, aren’t looking for business as usual. They want flexibility. To keep them in the labor force, employers must offer flexible work options that will appeal to them.

In recent testimony before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Cornelia Gamlem, president and founder of the Herndon, Va.-based GEMS Group, offered these suggestions for recruiting and retaining older workers:

  • Offer part-time employment and hire retired employees as consultants or temporary workers.
  • Encourage employees with specific expertise to mentor or coach others and to remain on call after they retire.
  • Establish forums where older workers can discuss how the employer can make the workplace more accommodating to their needs.
  • Base layoffs on organizational needs and employees’ skills, knowledge, ability, reliability, performance and length of service.
  • Offer retirement savings plans or pension plans with specific provisions for older workers.

Identify, prioritize and engage potential retirees

Talk to employees about their future plans and goals within the organization.

This should be a voluntary conversation designed to recognize the individual’s unique value and contributions to the organization and explore ways to transfer and retain their knowledge and experience.

Tips for making the most of this conversation include:

  • Ask employees what knowledge they feel is most critical
  • Explore how they might contribute to the development of future leaders
  • Be prepared with a range of options such as mentoring, coaching and direct involvement in training and development efforts.

Prepare senior and emerging leaders

Your efforts to engage senior leaders before they retire will be more successful if you provide the skills and tools they need to be effective. For example, a senior engineer may possess a lifetime of technical expertise but may lack the ability to share that knowledge effectively. Even the most seasoned, successful business leaders will benefit from some guidance and preparation. The type of preparation they require will depend on the individual and how you plan to engage them in the organization. Developing specific skills can mean the difference between their success and failure.

As you prepare your senior leaders to make a more significant impact, do the same with your emerging leaders. These future leaders should know that they have been selected because of the talent and potential they have demonstrated. They should also understand that the transfer of knowledge and experience is critical to the long-term success of the organization, and that they should appreciate the value it represents.

Create knowledge transfer opportunities

There are a number of ways to support the transfer of critical knowledge in your organization. Regardless of the method or combination of methods you employ, it is critical to identify the outcomes and objectives you hope to achieve to ensure that the investment of time and effort provides real value to everyone involved.

Proven methods of knowledge transfer include:

  • Formal and informal mentoring and coaching programs
  • Intergenerational work teams
  • Involvement of senior leaders in learning and development opportunities as instructors or participants