Boomerang Boom: More Firms Tapping the Skills of the Recently Retired


December 16, 2016

CALL them boomerang retirees: people who exit gracefully after their career at a company, then return shortly afterward to work there part time

Bryan anselm for The New York Times Mark Keefe at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, N.J., on Wednesday.

December 16, 2016

CALL them boomerang retirees: people who exit gracefully after their career at a company, then return shortly afterward to work there part time

Bryan anselm for The New York Times Mark Keefe at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, N.J., on Wednesday.

More and more companies are establishing formal programs to facilitate this, for reasons that benefit both the employer and the retiree. Leaving a satisfying job cold-turkey for a life of leisure can be an abrupt jolt to people accustomed to feeling purposeful, earning money and enjoying their colleagues.

Mark Keefe, a retiree, in his office at Overlook Medical Center. He has returned to the Overlook work force on a limited basis.

From the corporate perspective, it is useful to have experienced hands who can train younger people, pass along institutional wisdom and work with fewer strings attached.

“People in the U.S. define themselves by their work, and they like their co-workers,” said Roselyn Feinsod, senior partner in the retirement practice at the human resources firm Aon Hewitt, the human resources consultancy. Thus, unlike many retirees from past generations, people from both the blue-collar and white-collar sectors are more eager to retain ties to the familiar working world that they enjoyed (and sometimes loathed).

Mark Keefe, who spent his career as a human resources manager at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, N.J., retired in 2014, when he was 66. Since his wife still worked, he took on household chores and cooked the evening meals. “It was really a time to relax,” he said.

But the company that owns Overlook, Atlantic Health Systems of Morristown, N.J., is among the growing ranks of employers that sponsor a formal program to invite retirees back into the work force, for no more than 1,000 hours a year. The company’s Alumni Club — formerly known as the 1,000 Hour Club — was established in 2006, and about 300 Atlantic Health retirees are currently on the company’s payroll in various capacities. “They’re engaged employees; they’re productive,” said Lesley Meyer, Atlantic Systems’ manager of corporate human resources. “They’re a stable talent pool.”

Starting in March of 2015, Mr. Keefe began putting on a suit and tie and returning to work every Wednesday. He taps his human resources experience to counsel employees who are nearing retirement about benefit packages.

The soon-to-be-retired always have plenty of questions, and Mr. Keefe enjoys offering them information and guidance, including insights gleaned from his own experience. “I look at it this way: I have a six-day weekend,” he said. “I love it.”

Most boomerang retirees return to work after an informal negotiation with a former boss. Programs like the one at Atlantic Systems are still relatively rare — for instance, about 8 percent of the 463 companies surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2015 had one — but they are on the rise.

They are also tricky to run: Establishing a boomerang retiree program involves a substantial commitment of resources, including systems for navigating complex labor market rules and pension law. Most returning retirees must wait several months before they can come back, and are often limited to that 1,000 hours a year. Companies are increasingly turning to outside staffing firms to manage the nuts and bolts.

Beulah Webb, 59, retired in December 2015, after working 30 years on various assembly line jobs at Michelin North America’s rubber-mixing facility in Sandy Springs, S.C. Through the tire manufacturer’s 11-year-old Returning Retiree Employee program, she puts in roughly 30 hours a week as a facility training manager.

“I gained a lot of knowledge here at Michelin, and I like imparting knowledge,” said Ms. Webb, whose retirement also involves spending time with her 3-year-old grandson and rooting for her beloved Clemson Tigers football team. “The expertise I gained while employed at Michelin, I’m passing on to new employees.”

The public sector also has its boomerangs. California and many states offer public employee retirees the opportunity to come back part time. The federal government has recently been rolling out a phased retirement program; workers can cut back on their hours and continue to earn additional retirement benefits.

Human resource professionals predict that the number of boomerang retiree programs will expand, especially among larger companies with deep pockets. Older workers are the largest collection of talent on payroll, a deep well of skill to tap at a time when management routinely complains about skill shortages. The talents of recent retirees are well known to managers, while former employees are comfortable with an organization’s culture.

“It’s definitely a trend,” says Nina M. Ramsey, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for Kelly Services, the temporary staffing agency. “We know in many industries there are more opportunities than there is talent.”

Perhaps most important, management realizes that the biggest value of boomerangs lies in teaching the formal and informal ropes of the business to newer generations of workers. “New talent needs to be mentored as they come in the door,” Ms. Ramsay said. “Previous employees mentor incoming employees.”

It was a phone call from her former manager that lured Pat Waller, who spent 39 years as an intensive care nurse for Atlantic Health before retiring in 2005 at age 66, back to the work force part time. She joined the Alumni Club in 2007 after the hospital where she had worked, Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, N.J., applied to qualify as a federal center of excellence in knee and hip surgery; her former boss wondered if she would help gather data. Absolutely, she answered.

Since then, Ms. Waller has worked on several projects for Atlantic Health, gigs that easily give her the time to travel with her husband and see her six grandchildren.

Now that she is 77, Ms. Waller works mostly from home, sometimes three to four days a week and other times one to two, depending on the project, “I always said when I was at work I learned something every day,” she said. “Since I’ve come back, I feel the same way.”

Courtesy: NY Times