Earlier this week I spoke with Frederick Hartman at Needham, Mass.-based Vita Needle, a company unique in several respects. The metal fabricator allowed Caitrin Lynch, associate professor of anthropology at the Olin College of Engineering, also in Needham, to spend five years at the stainless steel tubing and needle manufacturer.
Oh, and one more thing: The median age of the Vita Needle employee is 73.
The company practices what Lynch calls eldersourcing, a practice she writes extensively about in her book about Vita, Retirement on the Line. Lynch argues that the retired too often are lumped into one demographic, a group that supposedly slides out of productive society gracefully, ready to embrace that long-awaited life of leisure.
But it’s not that simple. Nowadays people live decades into retirement, and not everyone wants to spend all that time unemployed. People in their 70s can be quite different from people in their 90s, just as people in their 40s can be quite different from people in their 60s. Traveling can be enriching; so can hobbies. At Vita, older workers socialize, joke, and have a sense of belonging--all qualities that may be experienced in other, more traditional retiree activities, from clubs to volunteer groups. But as Lynch explains, employment has a unique value; no matter their age, employed people can feel they’re part of a communal purpose. This holds true even for Rosa Finnegan, Vita Needle’s oldest employee, a centenarian.
As Lynch put it, “When I see her work, it makes me feel alive.”
Of course, Vita Needle’s elderly employees don’t work 60-hour weeks. Most are part-time--about 20 hours a week--and are offered flexible work schedules. If they want to take off for a month for a cross-country trip in the summer, they can. The market hasn't been kind to nest eggs in recent years, so some work because they need the money. But for most, money isn't the only reason they work.
Vita Needle employs 49 people, and about 20 are younger, full-time employees; the balance is part-time. From a management perspective, employing the elderly has some obvious advantages. They qualify for Medicare, for one thing, and because so many work part-time, the business can schedule its work force to meet the ebb and flow of customer demand.
But the practice also has some less obvious benefits that suit manufacturing especially. First, about a third of the older workers have manufacturing experience; they work alongside the younger generation and pass their knowledge on. Company President Frederick Hartman recalled a story about an older tooling specialist who helped a younger worker design a die to form an unusual flange in extremely thin-walled tubing, without fracturing it.
“This all required knowing the correct speed and angle [of the tool], and that knowledge comes from experience. You can’t learn that from a book or a computer screen,” Hartman said.
Second, eldersourcing helps Vita Needle’s employee retention. Small businesses employ most Americans, including most metal fabricators. If you weld, cut, or form metal for a living, chances are you work for a small company.
Politicians tout small employers as this country’s strongest growth engine, and they’re right. But small companies also have pyramid structures with plenty of room at the bottom and less room in the middle and top. If someone starts his career at the bottom and wants to move up the ladder in a small company, he or she often not only has to work hard but also be in the right place at the right time. If a supervisor or senior manager isn’t going anywhere, the ambitious employee probably will jump ship and find another (and often larger) company with better pay and potentially a career ladder to climb. This is a perennial challenge for thousands of small metal fabricators across the country, and often no one is to blame. A small company can have only so many generals.
But Vita Needle doesn’t have this problem. If someone starts at 70, it’s very likely he’ll stay on for a decade or even more. “And they aren’t looking to climb the corporate ladder,” Hartman said. “We don’t have a lot of turnover, so we aren’t hunting for people often. That’s one of the benefits of our work force. They stick around.” Many may work seemingly mundane assembly jobs, but they’re engaged, they show up on time, and they brainstorm better ways to get the job done.
Industry analysts opine about the graying American work force, especially in the skilled trades. But just because people turn 65 doesn’t mean they become useless or separate from the working world entirely, never to talk of their skilled trade again. In fact, when it comes to job knowledge, older workers can be one of metal fabrication’s greatest assets.
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