Labour shortage? Are older workers part of the solution?

Baby Boomers HavenImage by thinkpanama via FlickrBy Harvey Enchin
Get used to older workers, they'll soon by the norm rather than the exception
With the Canadian unemployment rate at 7.6 per cent and forecasts of slow economic growth ahead, perhaps the last thing on anyone’s mind is a labour shortage. Indeed, the focus of governments at all levels has been creating jobs, not finding people to fill them.
But the demographic reality is that as early as 2016, by some estimates, more people will be leaving the labour force than entering it. Since 2001, the number of people 65 years and older has increased by 11.5 per cent, while the number under 15 has declined by 2.5 per cent. By 2031, 25 per cent of Canada’s population will be over 65.
Many analysts argue that neither an increase in fertility rates nor higher levels of immigration will dramatically alter the outcome. The population is aging and there’s not much we can do about it.
In British Columbia, labour demand is expected to grow by approximately 80,000 more than labour supply by 2019, according to the provincial government’s Labour Market Outlook 2009-2019. Contractors maintaining the power grid and building new lines, for example, are looking for 200 to 300 skilled workers they think they’ll need to complete projects on the books for 2014. And a recent report, British Columbia’s Green Economy: Securing the Workforce of Tomorrow, warned that the province will face a shortage of 65,000 environmental workers by 2020.

Canada is not alone in coping with what some Cassandras call the demographic time bomb. Japan’s population began shrinking three years ago; a quarter of its people are over 65, children make up only 13 per cent. It’s a similar story in Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.
Given this scenario, societies will be challenged to remain productive, sustain prosperity and care for their elderly.
Fortunately, the 65-plus cohort is in better health than at any time in the past and many senior citizens seem willing and able to work beyond what used to be the mandatory retirement age. When the Canada Pension Plan officially became a government plan in 1965, life expectancy for men was 68 years and for women 74 years. Today, statistically speaking, men can expect to live for 79 years, and women for 84 years. In other words, time spent in retirement has, theoretically, quintupled. Recognizing this demographic sea-change and the pressures it puts on public pension plans, the federal government has begun the process to reform the system,
However, much more must be done in both the public and private sectors to accommodate an older workforce. In the latest issue of WorkSafeBC’s magazine, senior ergonomist Peter Goyert noted the average age of an injured worker has climbed above 40 for the first time and pointed out some of the issues facing employers of older workers. "We don’t see or hear as well," he explained. "Our colour perception deteriorates. Our reflexes slow down and we don’t sleep as well. We’re less flexible and our range of motion shrinks. Our bones thin, our balance declines, and we lose muscle and respiratory and cardiovascular function."
Goyert says an injured worker who needs time off will miss his age in days; a 20-year-old will miss 20 days, a 60-year-old, 60 days.
Older workers bring much to the table — experience, wisdom, loyalty and work ethic — but employers will have to invest more in safety, training (especially in new technologies), and programs that promote well-being to keep them on the job.
Barring any cataclysmic event that reshapes our demographic future, the older worker will be around for a while. And that’s a good thing.
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