Special Reports

SLO County employers preparing for baby boomer retirements

County Administrative officer and Baby boomer, David Edge and Administrative assistant, Anita Konopa  work in the County office.
Photo: Jayson Mellom 8-06-08
County Administrative officer and Baby boomer, David Edge and Administrative assistant, Anita Konopa work in the County office. Photo: Jayson Mellom 8-06-08 The Tribune

San Luis Obispo County employers, anticipating hundreds of baby boomer retirements in coming years, are acting now -- partnering with local colleges to recruit fresh faces, launching apprenticeship programs and creating flexible schedules for aging workers.

Those strategies are critical given that many of them, especially utilities, healthcare and government, could be hit hard by the vacancies boomers leave behind.

The problem touches “everything we do,” said David Edge, county administrative officer, referring to staff members who work as analysts, mechanics, correctional officers, planners, engineers, agriculture inspectors and social workers, among others.

Sixty-three percent of the county’s upper management staff is age 55 and older, Edge said. That represents 50 positions, including 19 department heads.

“Essentially, these are our leaders,” Edge said. “And they could walk out today … if they want to.”

A harsh reality

Boomer retirements represent a harsh reality for companies where this demographic represents half or more of the total staff. That’s why many of the Central Coast’s top employers are immersing themselves in strategies to buffer potential losses.

The county, for example, plans to send department heads or younger employees to speak to local students about careers in government. Some county departments -- including the sheriff’s, public works and planning -- have already taken this approach.

The county is also training workers from within, attending college job fairs and looking at ways to bring back retired employees into part-time positions, Edge said, noting 15-to-20-hour work weeks could be attractive to retirees who don’t want to sit at home.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the county’s largest private employer that owns Diablo Canyon Power Plant, is using workers facing retirement to mentor younger employees and pass on institutional knowledge.

The company also launched a workforce development program this year to partner with community colleges, Job Corps and local governments to attract skilled workers.

Forty-two percent of PG&E’s employees statewide who work in a variety of positions will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, said former spokeswoman Emily Christensen.

The company could not provide a local breakdown of retiring boomers.

In 2006, Compass Health Inc., a local assisted living and skilled nursing company, partnered with Cuesta College’s Licensed Vocational Nursing Program to avoid significant shortfalls in future staffing. Students in the one-year program work to attain their vocational nurse certification through formal class instruction, supervised hospital work and a licensing exam. The program is at Cuesta’s Paso Robles campus.

“As older nurses choose to retire or alter their schedules,’’ younger nurses can fill those positions, said Darren Smith, chief operating officer of the Grover Beach-based business.

Since the partnership began, Compass has received about 35 nurse recruits.

Employers are also banking on the possibility that boomers will need to keep working because of the economic downturn. The strong work ethic of America’s largest generation may also play a role in boomers staying put a little longer.

Nurses in the county, for example, often work into their late- 60s and 70s, Smith said.

Compass, as well as local hospitals, works with older staffers by allowing them one-shift-per-week options or clearance to work on a fill-in basis.

Seeking locals

Several companies tackling recruitment issues say they prefer to search for locals who are already adjusted to high housing costs. But that can be tough because the number of qualified candidates here is small.

As a result, many companies have no choice but to recruit from outside the Central Coast, offering relocation expenses on a case-by-case basis, as well as signing bonuses and extra money to pay off student loans.

Employers also hope the allure of the area will attract graduates who would otherwise leave for big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Hospitals offer “50-50” programs, where eligible student professionals work half the week earning a paycheck and spend the other half at nearby colleges. The students must then agree to work for a planned amount of time after graduation.

Few industries spared

Certain employers, like local banks and nonprofits, anticipate the aging workforce will not have an adverse effect on them because existing staff are already being groomed. Atascadero State Hospital believes the slowed economy will entice its workers to hold on to their paychecks longer, said Peggy Phaklides, litigation coordinator. In March, The Tribune reported that ASH had chronic staffing shortages because low salaries at the hospital prompted some workers to leave for higher-paying positions elsewhere. Phaklides said such activity is unrelated to the boomer issue affecting other employers and the facility has since worked to increase its salaries to retain its workforce.For others, like school districts, boomer retirements could leave deep holes in staffing.

In June, The Tribune reported about 1,400 years of combined experience were leaving classrooms across the county as a crop of teachers retired or resigned, lured by incentive packages designed to cut costs at local schools. Local districts plan to continue recruitment needs for all jobs, from secretaries to bus drivers to teachers, through a statewide education job database that they’ve used for several years, said Christin Newlon, chief human resources officer of the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education.

Hospitals are also largely boomer staffed. Nurses in today’s workforce have reached an average age of about 46, according to the American Nurses Association.

“Literally, we’re predicting shortages in every job classification,” said Susan Winsell, vice president of human resources at French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo. These include clinical lab scientists, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, image personnel technicians, physical therapy and physicians.

Hospitals in San Luis Obispo County are working now to address the upcoming departures so that patient care isn’t affected.

To confront the problem in advance, Sierra Vista’s parent company, Tenet Healthcare Corp., expanded its recruitment to regional educational institutions the last three years, Yukelson said.

Some hard-to-find local recruits include nurses, doctors and pharmacists, he said.

Catholic Healthcare West, which oversees French Hospital Medical Center and Arroyo Grande Community Hospital, has taken similar steps.

Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton also reaches outside the county for applicants.

No savings on salaries

Employers say it’s doubtful that they’ll be able to save money by replacing higher-paid boomers. CHW could allot those dollars to the latest medical care technologies, Maloney said. But that company, along with other businesses, say such nest eggs aren’t a sure bet because replacement salaries are generally high and include a mix of not just younger, but experienced staffers of all ages. CHW declined to disclose salary ranges for nurses and other professions at its hospitals.

Also, costs vary depending on the position that needs to be filled.

“When we lose a director-level or above position, it often takes the same salary or more to (entice) a person to relocate to a higher cost-of-living area,” Yukelson said.

Even so, regardless of the type of effort top employers in the area are investing to fill vacancies boomers may leave behind, all companies say attacking the issue before it becomes a problem is a top priority.

“We know there will be shortages,” Winsell said. “And we know doing nothing means not enough workers in the future.”