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Retirees are back, and employers are reaping the benefits

“I think there is a tremendous amount of talent and experience and skills that we have in retirees in this area.” —Allison Blackwood, President of AEI Staffing

FALLS VILLAGE — Not many people go into retirement expecting to re-enter the workplace. But Joel Jones did just that — more than once.

And he’s not alone.

Jones, 60, is part of a growing demographic of “un-retirees,” people who, for various reasons, have cut short their retirement to return to work. Some find they need to supplement their income or boost their nest egg, while others, like Jones, have chosen exit careers in which they can give back to their communities.

“It’s not for the money, it’s for a different cause,” the Falls Village resident explained.

“Most folks cannot even believe that I’m a CNA now,” said Jones, a chemical engineer, who enjoyed 38 successful years as a global business leader and in has been working since late February as a Certified Nursing Assistant at Geer Village Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in North Canaan.

“I am now working side-by-side with folks who are a lot younger than me, and they seem incredulous that I’m working as a CNA. They ask, ‘Why are you doing this job? or ‘Are you an Undercover Boss or something?’”

For many companies reeling from a critical worker shortage, particularly in the Northwest Corner, this trend has led to a renewed focus on recruitment and retention of workers older than age 55.

“Any additional retirees returning to the workforce is critically needed, as Connecticut’s labor force has declined by 47,100 people since February 2020, or 38% of the region’s losses,” said Chris DiPentima, president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA).

The pandemic pushed older workers out of the labor market.

According to a national AARP survey, 38% of people aged 50 and over who retired, left or considered leaving their job during the COVID-19 pandemic said they would not have done so were it not for the pandemic. Twenty-one percent said they opted for early retirement because of the pandemic.

“Retirees returning to the workforce would be received with open arms,” noted DiPentima.

From business suit
to nursing scrubs

Prior to his first retirement in 2013, Jones spent 29 years at Dow Chemical, ending as a global corporate account executive, responsible for several of the Fortune 500 company’s largest accounts. That was career one.

A month after retiring from that “crazy fun career,” which took him to 22 countries around the globe, career two began with Jones serving as a leader in a chemical industry startup company. He then joined a biotechnology startup, then a third startup in the cosmetics industry. Career three followed as a consultant in the chemical and frozen food industries, lasting until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Joel and his wife, Felicia, relocated from New York City to Falls Village. Jones serves as a volunteer on the Sharon Hospital Board of Directors, and was its chairman from 2017 to 2019.

“After career two,” he explained, “we really started to blend our lives into Falls Village,” where the couple are involved in numerous volunteer and civic roles. He was convinced it was time to finally leave the corporate world behind.

“Within six months I had the whole attic cleaned out, and the yard looked like Disneyland,” said Jones, who faced the realization that he wasn’t ready to be done with work.

On Feb. 22, 2022, he began a new career as a CNA at Geer. But this time was different. Jones had found a new purpose in life.

“It’s been exhausting and physically draining but in a good way. It’s really been an amazing experience and a valuable experience for me,” he explained.

“I’m 60 and in good shape, I’ve had great careers and can afford to work for very modest wages now,” he said. “That notwithstanding, it has been probably my favorite career … so far. I am truly making a positive difference in the lives of the residents in my care.”

Some have little choice

With inflation at a 40-year high, many retirees have little choice but to collect a paycheck.

As a result, the number of people who un-retire is expected to pick up steam as the cold months arrive and people are faced with lofty inflation and prices soaring for everything from food to gas to heating their homes.

In addition to Jones, Geer CEO Kevin O’Connell said he recently hired several retirees on fixed incomes who were worried that they would not be able to afford fuel oil to heat their homes this winter.

“While I am happy to have them here, it’s disturbing that people have to do that,” said O’Connell.

Nearby in North Canaan, business owner Mike Schopp said one of his new hires, who commutes daily from Torrington to work, took early retirement from his former job working security for one of former President Donald Trump’s properties. Now he is un-retired.

“He eventually realized he needed to supplement his income,” said Schopp.

Lofty inflation is forcing seniors on a fixed income to return to work, but for many, physical limitations make return-to-work challenging, if not impossible, according to Melia Hill, Sharon’s social services agent.

“To keep up with rising costs, they would like a job but can’t get one for various reasons,” noted Hill. “A physical disability or poor eyesight makes them ineligible to re-enter the workforce.”

During a recent presentation to members of the Northwest Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, Connecticut Labor Department Economist Patrick Flaherty noted that many employers are more focused on recruiting “unicorns” than they are older workers.

“They are hiring 20-year-olds and expecting them to have 30 years of experience.”

John Harney, a veteran real estate agent in Salisbury, said he has known people who retired from one job and then launched a second career in real estate.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are, you become more valuable as you age into the industry. Real estate is based on effectiveness, knowledge, network building and experience.”

‘Cultural shift’ by employers needed

Could retirees be part of the solution to the critical worker shortage in the Northwest Corner?

Allison Blackwood, president and CEO of the Torrington-based AEI Staffing, which serves Litchfield County, believes it can, but only with a “cultural shift” by companies in their approach to hiring workers over the age of 55. Employers and their human resources teams, rocked by the unprecedented circumstances the pandemic created, said Blackwood, need to understand reasons for older workers’ departures from the workforce — whether due to layoffs, fear of working during the pandemic, choosing early retirement or burnout — and find ways to entice them back.

Employers should be approaching the re-entry of retirees as more than a means to staunch the worker shortage. This trend may present an opportunity to address the age-old ageism problem in hiring by focusing on the value this cohort brings to the workplace, like life experience, the ability to mentor younger workers, an ironclad work ethic and low absenteeism.

“It will require employers, from all sectors, to change how they traditionally think about what defines an ideal employee,” said Blackwood.

For example, she said, some retirees can only offer working part-time without affecting their retirement income, so a creative solution would be for an employer to take a full-time position and divide it into two part-time jobs. Accommodations can also be made for workers who may not be able to stand for long periods of time.

Employers should look beyond a person’s resume and list of qualifications and explore what the right position is at this point in their life and what type of role they are seeking, and not dismiss them for being overqualified, said the employment agency owner.

“Some people still want to be productive,” but are not looking to return to high-stress, senior management jobs. “They want to have someone else tell them what to do.”

Reaping employees’
‘wealth of knowledge’

Jones’ employer described him as a “very civic-minded” individual with a wealth of knowledge that is being tapped to not only fill a much-needed role in patient care, but also to improve working conditions at the nursing home.

“He’s an experienced executive. While working as a CNA he can see the job from all sides. He has given us a deeper assessment of the CNA job, which is not an easy one,” said O’Connell.

As for Jones, who, when not working 40 to 45 hours a week, serves as a volunteer firefighter in his hometown, is a Justice of the Peace and is a member of the Falls Village Board of Assessment Appeals. He also serves as chairman of the Board of Finance.

He and his wife are also trail maintainers for the Appalachian Mountain Club and can often be found traversing the trails with their black Lab, Cleo.

Reflecting on his interaction with patients at Geer nursing, Jones noted, “I’ve had so many great conversations with residents about their lives. It’s a privilege and a big responsibility knowing that how you show up to the job directly affects the life experience of another person.”

He has no plans to retire anytime soon.

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