Retired Renaissance

December 08, 2011
Written by Andrew Hind
Over the coming decade, almost all of the 9.6 million baby boomers (a figure representing a quarter of the population) will be in retirement. When one predicts the future of labour in Canada, this single fact looms large over the entire discussion. The greying of our workforce will shape retail operations – including garden centres and nurseries – moving forward, and will offer both challenges and opportunities.

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Recognizing that a demographic change is looming and planning for it well in advance are vital. Retiring boomers represent not only lost workers, but potentially lost knowledge as well.

 

The large number of boomers retiring over the next five to 10 years will lead to a dramatic shift in the workforce and retail professionals in all fields need to be ready for it,” cautions Adwoa K. Buahene, managing partner of N-Gen People Performance Inc, which specializes in workforce forecasting here in Canada. “There’s no doubt that the aging workforce is going to be a challenge for retail management and HR professionals. On the one hand there is the mass exodus of knowledge and skill that has to be replaced, and on the other hand, there is the need to adapt to retired workers re-entering the workplace on a part-time basis because they will represent a vital pool of labour in the retail landscape.”

Recognizing that a demographic change is looming and planning for it well in advance is vital. Retiring boomers don’t just represent lost workers, but potentially lost knowledge as well. A successful company must ensure there is a transfer of knowledge over the coming decade. One way to do this is to set up a mentoring program where you position people leaving the workforce alongside younger workers for an extended period of time. The landscape may be changing but many aspects of business remain universal – such as how to deal with customers, salesmanship and merchandising. You want to capture work processes so all knowledge doesn’t walk out the door when an aging worker retires. This is especially vital in small, family-run businesses – a category into which many garden centres fall – because they lack the institutional structure that would help preserve these skills and knowledge.

Companies that will be successful over the next decade have a succession plan in hand. They recognize which key positions must be filled in the coming years, and are grooming employees to take over these future vacancies. This ensures there isn’t a mad dash to find a suitable replacement when the boomer retires, because in the coming years it will become increasingly harder to find skilled workers ready to step into leadership roles.

This comes at a time when, thanks to the aging population, there will be increased competition for scarce labour resources, which will make it harder to find skilled workers ready to take the baton. The demographic shift is just beginning to be felt and yet there is already an air of uncertainty among employers in Canada, thanks in part to numerous recent surveys that have indicated over 50 per cent of workers are apt to change jobs once the economy decisively turns around. This number is highest (over 70 per cent) among younger, part-time workers between the ages 18 and 30, which not coincidentally is the segment most represented by the garden centre industry. The fact that so many workers said they might be walking out the door for another job after the economy picks up is raising the alarm of employers. Where will garden centres find their all-important part-time staff?

“Companies need to recognize that it will be tough to find people and keep them and that this will be a long-term, systemic problem that won’t go away in a few years’ time,” says Buahene. “The increasing demand for skilled, motivated workers has led to many employers opening their arms to workers over the age of 65, the so-called ‘traditionalists.’ They will be important in an economy characterized by increased competition for labour.”

Some industry professionals assert that the mass exodus of boomers from the workforce does not represent doom and gloom, but rather opportunities that retailers can exploit to their advantage. According to the report “Gray Skies, Silver Linings: How Companies are Forecasting, Managing and Recruiting a Mature Workforce” by the Conference Board of Canada, market research shows that customers usually prefer dealing with staff their own age. Since the population is aging, more customers are getting older too. It stands to reason, therefore, that if a garden centre hires mature workers their older customers will appreciate it.

In addition, mature workers often have excellent customer-service skills. They have a wealth of life experience to draw on, and a career’s worth of experience in dealing with people and solving problems. Most mature individuals will have less of a learning curve due to prior work experience; many are able to work immediately, without substantive training and management. In addition, they can share their knowledge and experience with younger workers in a mentorship role, relieving some burden from overtaxed managers and owners who have precious little time to train staff themselves.

Finally, once hired, older workers usually choose to stay at a job longer, which will save businesses time and money finding, hiring and training new staff.

Although there is little doubt mature workers represent opportunities for retailers, there is also no doubt that in order to incorporate them companies will have to adapt and evolve. They will need to be flexible in terms of scheduling, store policies and expectations, and also be cognizant of the fact their mindset, values, and the way they view the world, will be vastly different from those of a teenager who may be working alongside them.

“Managing will be more challenging moving forward because it will require an understanding of the needs, interests and views of the four generations present in the workforce,” stresses Buahene. “Managers and store owners will need to integrate all ages into their business. How do you lead such a broad spectrum of people? The most important thing is to realize that people come at things from a generational perspective, and because we define values differently based on our generation managers will need to be flexible and adaptive.”

In the years ahead, Canada’s aging workforce will pose challenges and opportunities for Canadian garden centres. Adapting to this demographic shift will be the key to success for managers and owners as they plot a course to profitability over the next decade.

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