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The age of negotiation

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

s_RobinAs CEO of Doussard Family Industries (DFI), I’ve fielded a lot of questions from other small-business owners about how we’re preparing to deal with our aging workforce. It’s a critical issue facing American businesses as the boomer bulge in the python begins to retire in the next few years.

Like many executive managers, I’m struggling with how to keep my experienced older workers employed at the company for as long as possible. Case in point: The DFI operations manager, while still a few years away from the age where he could pull the plug, lately has been talking about “scaling back.” He sees running ops as a bottomless pit of work, and pretty thankless. For instance, at a recent board meeting I decided we needed to upgrade our landscaping operation, and that he would need to dig at least 20 new holes for the strategic expansion. There was a solid business reason behind this: Plants were on sale.

Operations: It’s going to take me all weekend to dig that many holes.

Management: Think of the business first, will you? Wrap your arthritic hands and get out there.

Operations: OK, but you’ve got to stack the firewood while I’m doing it.

Management: I think we need to develop a summer intern program.

DFI has no upcoming generation of younger workers, so this summer intern program is not a bad idea because ours is only a two-person shop. The company in its early years decided to bypass the development of the next generation, but I can see now how that has put us at a disadvantage. Without low-cost youngsters to run errands and do the low-level tasks, senior members have to pick up the slack. (Our temps, which we recruit from the canine pool, don’t last long and do not have thumbs. We can’t count on them.) On the other hand, we don’t have education and training expenses, not to mention the multitude of HR issues, such as unauthorized use of company vehicles or coming back from assignment after 3 a.m.  

Like many businesses, our shortage is most acute in the skilled labor areas. This is where the ops manager has extreme leverage. With his construction, plumbing, landscaping, electrical, cooking and poop-scooping skills, he could name his price with another company. Not that he’s ever looked at another CEO, mind you, but I still feel vulnerable to competition. There might be a younger, less demanding boss out there, one with fewer depreciating assets, who is willing to overlook his spotty resume; how often do you get this level of expertise in someone who still has hair to comb?

Memo to self: Cancel the ops retreat in Vegas this year.

But I am not the kind of CEO who ignores the needs of her workers, so I asked the operations manager to tell me what would make the company more appealing for the long term. Like many aging workers, he wants flexible hours, less work, more creativity, more free beverages and less criticism of the Miami Hurricanes. These do not seem unreasonable to me and I’m willing to try them out. But, as I reminded him, DFI has never reduced his benefits (in fact, the beverage budget has steadily increased) and has not asked him to visit the CEO’s mother in 15 years. I doubt seriously if a younger CEO would offer such an attractive contract.   

I would like to think that I could just find a younger worker to take his place. Someone with more energy who would work longer for less pay and appreciate my steady stream of constructive criticism. (None of us is ever too old to learn and grow, are we?)

But, truthfully, it’s taken me 30 years to train this staff. Who has the energy to do that again?

— Robin Doussard
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