Alberta targets mature workers to combat future labour shortage

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EDMONTON - The Alberta government wants aging workers to put off retirement instead of putting golf balls as a way to stave off a looming labour shortage.
Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk released Wednesday a strategy aimed at encouraging more mature workers to stay on the job.
It’s one way to avert the worker, skills and knowledge crunch expected when the forecasted economic upturn crashes into Alberta’s aging population.
“We’re walking into a perfect storm,” Lukaszuk said, after announcing the report Engaging the Mature Worker: An Action Plan for Alberta at a human resources conference.
“2011 is the first year during which officially baby boomers are turning 65, so we’re looking at a large exodus of workers, not only in numbers but experience.”
Alberta faces a shortage of at least 77,000 workers in the next decade, he said. “That means no doctors, that means no coffee shops open, that means no daycare.”
Lukaszuk said he wants to maximize groups which are under-represented in the workforce — aboriginals, youth, immigrants and older people. A similar government report on engaging aboriginals is on the way.
Mature workers now account for about 16 per cent of the workforce and fewer than one in four employers have strategies in place to address the aging workforce.
In 2010, 17,400 Albertans retired, 2,300 more than in 2009. About 190,000 workers are expected to retire during the next 10 years.
Lukaszuk said the government wants to tap into mature workers — age 55 and above — who don’t want to stop working.
“We’re finding that our pre-retirees and retirees no longer follow the pattern of turning 65 and instantly hitting the golf course and never working again. Most mature workers want to stay engaged in the labour force in some capacity — maybe doing what they were doing all their lives but on a part-time or casual basis or changing careers altogether.”
The strategy was met with mixed reviews at the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton.
“Sixty-five is too young to retire,” said one senior, who declined to give her name.
Diana Bacon, 77, retired as a kindergarten teacher when she was 58 and said that as it turned out, if she had kept working, it would have robbed her of a blessing.
“I retired early because my husband retired early and I’m glad I did because we had a few trips and things before he died,” Bacon said.
“If I’d have kept on working, I’d have missed that. And after he died, I could have gone back to work but I have enough to live on and I don’t require a lot.”
Bacon, who volunteers at the centre preparing taxes for seniors, says encouraging people to work longer will have another unintended consequence.
“If you allow people to work endlessly, you’re going to cut back on the people available to do volunteer work. It’s very well-known that the best volunteers are the seniors.”
The plan calls on government to work with employers to retain mature workers by developing age-friendly workplaces, succession planning and phased retirements.
Mature workers who want to keep working should have more employment and career services and post-secondary education options.
The plan also calls for educating employers on the value of older workers and to revise pension and tax policies.
It suggests employers consider reducing hours and responsibilities of mature workers, move some to part-time work, recall retirees for busy times, use them for mentoring and consulting and redesign their jobs.
“There’s nothing magical that happens to us at 65,” Lukaszuk said.
“We don’t lose our capabilities. We not only could be as productive but frankly, could be even more productive because of the wealth of experience that we have.”
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour said he supports mature workers staying on voluntarily but worried some may be coerced to stay on.
“If (Lukaszuk’s) talking about forcing people to work past retirement age against their choice, then he’s going to have a war on his hands. Working Albertans won’t take kindly to having their retirement dreams undermined or taken away.”
He was also skeptical that employers would go out of their way to accommodate older workers.
“We in the labour movement have been calling on both governments and employers for years to discuss more flexible approaches to retirement for mature workers, but the truth is we’ve met a lot of resistance especially from the employers’ side.
“I’m not as convinced as the Minister seems to be that employers will get behind a more flexible approach.”
Charlotte Bouchard, chair of the Human Resources Institute of Alberta, said employers are looking at ways to retain older workers and reviewing their retirement policies.
“That’s a lot of experience that’s going out the door,” Bouchard said.
But employers face some challenges when it comes to retaining mature workers. “Is there the desire for them to stay? Secondly, what initiatives do you need to put in place to get them to stay? Do you need to help them more with benefits? Do you need to give more life balance?
“You need to have some flexibility.”
Lukaszuk said the province will work with the federal government to make sure tax rules and other policies don’t deter people working past retirement age.
“If you’re collecting your pension and choose to work part-time, you will just jump yourself one bracket over and everything you’re earning will be deducted in income tax and making it a futile exercise.”
Lukaszuk said keeping aging people working could boost workforce numbers by 40,000 but it still isn’t a long-term solution to Alberta’s labour shortage.
“At the end of the day, if we were to be 100-per-cent successful with persons with disabilities, mature workers, aboriginals, women and those who are chronically unemployed or underemployed, that still won’t suffice.
“At the end of the day, our population growth is still not catching up with our labour force requirement to our economic growth.”
Lukaszuk urged the federal government to revamp Canada’s immigration policies to better address the economic needs of provinces.

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