Working wonders: Senior citizens contribute to workforce

Seniors provide an experienced, flexible labor source

1470191_10152041717170169_939949830_nSpecial to the Sun
Monday, August 11, 2008

Sandy Abbajay, at 70 years young, helped set up and establish Linens ‘n Things at the Flagstaff Mall Marketplace last October. It took 10 days and untold truckloads of goods, but fortunately, she had the dedicated assistance of another senior, Verna Johnson.

“I just can’t sit,” said Abbajay. “And besides, you can never retire from life,” she added, laughing. A few years ago, Abbajay made the decision to move across the country. The fact that her children objected to her driving off to explore future options just steeled her resolve. She put her life in storage and her retirement from 20 years as a manager on hold.

“I hate to use the word ‘retire.’ It creates a mindset that no one will hire you, and retirees are an untapped resource.”

She obviously found the right fit, because Andy Western, general manager for Linens ‘n Things, said, “I’d never thought of Sandy and Verna as seniors. You see through the ages because everyone just jumps in and off-loads the trucks when they come in.”

Verna Johnson echoed her co-worker’s story. After retiring from a housekeeping job at Flagstaff Medical Center, she spontaneously applied for the new store opening.

“I’m not the type to just sit there and let the time go by.”

And there is respect with age.

“When the younger employees need help, they look for me.”

Meg Gonzalez, a third senior, works nearly full-time with commensurate benefits.

“I don’t care how old you are, stay up with the times.”

And statistics reflect that computer skills are remarkably similar for workers aged 16 to 69.

All of these women entertain grandchildren, so look for flexibility. Western admits that with her labor budget and older workers who look for fewer hours, it’s a perfect match.

“You get 40 hours out of their 20, considering their work ethic and dependability.”

Senior citizens first led the charge for mandatory retirement, so it’s ironic that today’s retirees are rallying to revoke it. These seniors face 20 additional years of budgeting, and though 50 percent contributed to private pension plans, security may have been compromised due to corporate scandals or stock market slumps.

Corporations have also reduced or eliminated traditional pension packages to reduce costs. Half of employers have changed or cut benefits, requiring more 401(k) plans that shove planning, saving and investing for retirement back on employees. The reality is that 30 percent of all working households have not saved anything for the future.

Social Security’s future is questionable. This is a particularly bad deal for low-wage workers who need it most and have the least disposable income to save for old age. Business Week polled workers nearing retirement age and two out of three planned to continue working.

Companies rave about seniors in their employ. The mature force brings reliability, valued wisdom, low turnover and consistency to the workplace alongside their years.

And jobs are available. The Internet site RetirementCommunity.com listed 37 jobs within the Flagstaff/ Sedona area with a range of abilities and responsibility. Snagajob.com listed over 88 jobs that included Pizza Hut, Verizon, hotel and travel companies, Michael’s, Home Depot and Kohl’s — the latter presently employs 10 seniors.

Besides money, retirees choose to work for other reasons: quality of life, making a difference, flexibility, enjoyment, new career paths and staying involved. Brian Fenske, a manager at Ace HomCo, values his half-dozen retirees.

“Their experience is fantastic, and they are more respectful when dealing with customers,” said Fenske.

And despite romantic retirement notions, Fenske said, “They rarely miss days to go to the creek. Our guys have experience with the products and projects we sell. Management enjoys that.”

At 78, Norm Thomas likes Ace for the routine and money for his interests.

“Work puts you on a schedule. And I had a lot of building projects going, so it helps to get a discount,” he said.

A former researcher for Lowell Observatory and NAU plus a continual community volunteer, he added, “I like to help people.”

Richard Adams, 66, spent 23 years in the insurance business and another decade as an entrepreneur.

“It’s just one big happy family here (at Ace). I can just leave my desk in the tool department and that’s that,” he said.

Then, reminding us of how many productive years are facing retirees today, he said, “You can only do so much skiing, hunting and fishing.”

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