Jobs and the Future of Work

Older and wiser: how to hold on to your experienced workforce

How can companies hold on to long-term staff?

Karin Klein
Founding Partner, Bloomberg Beta
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Fast forward to when you are 100 years old and have just retired. Reflecting on your career, you realize you’ve held 50 jobs – not even counting the part-time gigs you’ve navigated over the years, alongside and in between full-time jobs.

This might sound ridiculous, invigorating or exhausting, depending on your point of view. But it’s not that far-fetched. As people live longer, retire later and work on an increasing number of jobs, this scenario could be a reality for many of us.

For companies, it’s an opportunity. There will be more experienced talent in the job market than at any point in history. Through education, mentoring and benefits, companies can help employees reinvent themselves and potentially reduce turnover, which can cost over $3 trillion annually. Companies can intentionally build a range of career paths within their firms and help employees build portable skills they can apply to different roles, and encourage training and mentoring to be part of employees' responsibilities.

The workforce is ageing

People are living longer and retiring later. The percentage of working Americans age 55 and over has risen from 11.9% in 1994 to 21.7% in 2014 and will rise even further, according to research conducted by Bloomberg and New America.

Image: Bureau of Labor Statistics

People are also holding a greater variety of jobs and doing more freelance work. The average job tenure for current employees stands at about 4.4 years, and the average person will hold about 11 jobs in their lifetime.

If people ever expected to stay in the same job for 30 years, they certainly don’t now. There are fewer of those long-lasting jobs available. Career changes are the new norm. What’s more, 54 million Americans do freelance work, amounting to about one-third of the US workforce. These independent contractors are a mixture of full-time freelancers, part-time workers and people who supplement their day jobs with moonlighting.

Employers help employees

If these trends continue, we will eventually have 80-year-olds in the workforce who have had 30 or more jobs over the course of their careers. Leaders need to ask themselves: is this really the best way to manage talent? It’s wasteful to spend time finding, hiring and training talent just to let them drift away after a few years. And the costs continue to grow when we consider the impact on team culture as well as the lost company history and knowledge.

Instead, there is an opportunity for companies to prioritize retention. And not just giving lip service to retention with morale-boosting holiday parties and token benefits (Casual Fridays!) – but focusing on real, meaningful actions that help people learn and grow.

One significant way to do that is through education and career development. Sure, the antiquated model of working at a job for decades might promise security, but it could also be boring to be in the same role for many years. Instead, employers can help employees reinvent themselves in the same company.

Like a second college degree

As we are living and working longer, continuous learning is more important than ever, and businesses need to find ways to make learning more personalized, engaging and collaborative for their employees. One company succeeding at this is Qualcomm, which wanted to empower employees to drive their own learning paths. Using Pathgather (a Bloomberg Beta portfolio company), Qualcomm created a social environment that connects employees around learning and development. The company provides structure, social support and the tools needed to help employees figure out what they want to learn and also show colleagues what they’re learning.

Some companies have also been focused on developing employee-centric cultures. The B Team, which Virgin founder Richard Branson recently wrote about, is a collective of companies experimenting to make work “100% human”, as they describe it. Other firms are offering non-traditional benefits, such as Automattic, which has an open vacation policy, Etsy, which provides six months paid leave for both mothers and fathers, and Microsoft, which offers eight-week paid sabbaticals for employees of more than 10 years. There are many ways to innovate around work and people: Bonusly (another Bloomberg Beta portfolio company) has a blog filled with ideas about how to increase employee satisfaction and retention.

We know these trends are coming. Now is the time to experiment, in a talent market where there is less urgent pressure to adapt to these trends. I’d love to see a company make it interesting for employees to be there for years and treat career development as a second college degree – ensuring employees have the skills to take on new challenges at the same companies. Smart leaders will do so.

You can find more blogs in the Skills for Your Future series here

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