Skilling up for bulk retirements

According to the most recent State of the Service Report people management continues to be a key leadership gap in the public service. A term that covers a broad range of skills and requires knowledge of a sizeable pile of laws, policies and procedures, taking care of staff will soon extend to managing bulk retirements.

The Report tells us ongoing staff aged 60 years and over increased to 5.2% of the APS workforce at June 2011. Employees in the 45 years and over age group, who will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years, account for 43.7% of ongoing employees. Eleven per cent of baby boomers reported intending to retire within the next two years.

This ageing of the APS workforce raises significant workforce planning and succession management challenges for agencies. Older workers are more likely to be working at higher classifications and, in general, have longer lengths of service, compared with the average. Selecting these staff was a costly business. Retiring them in a dignified, professional manner warrants more than a morning tea and perfunctory exit interview.

Once a straightforward event, retirement these days is as complex a decision-making process as what occupation to enter in the first place. The earlier model of retirement, with its cold turkey exit from the workforce, may still apply to some, but with the line between working full-time and not working blurring, baby boomers need to consider their options about how they will retire and what they are retiring to. After all, the next 20 or 30 years of life are at stake.

Two questions go to the heart of how well agencies will manage a glut of retirements. How much responsibility does an organisation have to help people manage the transition from full-time work to the retirement phase of their careers, in whatever form that may take? And do managers have the skills and knowledge to handle these transitions gracefully?

Skill shortages, a competitive labour market, a tightening fiscal environment, loss of corporate knowledge, all feed the need to effectively manage retirement transitions both for those leaving as well as those staying. Not taking some responsibility for supporting staff is short-sighted and likely to tarnish reputations, sink morale and increase turnover.

Most retirement advice falls into two categories – finance and lifestyle. Yet retirement planning is much more than just financial planning. Agencies can foster retirement planning through both formal programs and manager support. Managers will, however, need to develop some new skills and understand the impact of a multi-facetted retirement decision.

A key skill is being able to conduct elegant conversations about retirement intentions. Part of such conversations is to encourage staff to become career activists, so they share the planning responsibility. Staff need to work out for themselves what retirement means. Is it about travel, discovery, relaxation, adventure? Retirement is far more than a very long weekend.

Retirement is a major life transition that can be stressful. Roles, relationships, identity all change. Do staff understand the emotional impact of what they are leaving behind – the job title, fulfilling challenges, authority? Do they appreciate the change in family dynamics? How much time does a person really want to spend with their spouse or partner? In short, retirement planning is about imagining a life that can be experienced with the same anticipation as during a working career. Leadership is about encouraging staff to think this through.

Managers also need to cultivate a culture that doesn’t undermine age nor pander to age-based stereotypes. They need to understand flexible working arrangements and know what is possible for staff who wish to embark on a phased retirement. Accommodating part-time work, redesigned jobs and sideways shifts can easily diminish authority and credibility, and trigger perceptions of irrelevance.

Then there are the needs of remaining staff. How will those left behind cope with weekly good-byes? A stream of farewells can easily become tedious. Frequent dips into the pocket for gifts and lunches can foster resentment and anger. Ignoring a person’s departure is equally damaging, sending a message that staff are invisible and only valued when on the job.

Pre-retirement planning is a joint responsibility. While not an area of their core expertise, agencies who aspire to employer of choice branding will benefit from providing retirement planning opportunities and building managers’ skills in conducting career conversations. In these belt-tightening, pre-budget times, some people will need retirement planning at short notice. Ideally though, what staff will do in this next career phase needs to be considered well before it is imminent. Helping them to do so will really show leadership.

First published in Public Sector Informant, April 2012, The Canberra Times

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.