How to Stem the Brain Drain

Features - Human Resources

With more employees nearing retirement, how can you retain and transfer the knowledge that helps your company thrive?

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November 4, 2020

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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of PCT Canada. To learn more about the publication, visit www.pctonline.com/page/pct-canada.

With more Baby Boomers retiring, pest management companies could lose the critical knowledge that helps them succeed.

Any information that’s not institutionalized can follow people right out the door to Florida or California, explains Brett Johnston, president of Assured Environmental Solutions in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada. Then, “all this knowledge is just sitting there in Palm Springs at the pool,” he says.

The potential for “brain drain” is a bigger problem than many organizations realize. In 2020, the number of workers retiring in Canada alone is expected to reach 8,000 per week, according to a report by Mercer, a global consulting firm with offices in Toronto.

That means a lot of important know-how could be lost unless companies make an effort to capture and transfer this knowledge. Pest management companies potentially could lose technical know-how, such as how to control a full-blown German cockroach infestation, as well as sales, customer service and operational expertise.

Small companies are especially at risk since many don’t have this knowledge captured in standard operating procedure (SOP) manuals, unlike larger organizations, says Kathleen Redmond, a certified executive coach, University of Guelph lecturer, and founder of the Centre for Character Leadership in Toronto.

Still, small companies do have an advantage: They often are more agile than larger organizations in finding ways to engage older workers beyond traditional retirement, she says. Many people want to remain engaged and continue to perform meaningful work; they just don’t want to work a full-time job anymore, points out Redmond. “Flexibility is a huge issue,” she says of retirees’ top priority.

WAYS TO ENGAGE OLDER WORKERS. Redmond urges business owners and managers to explore ways to engage long-term employees for a year or more following their “retirement” from full-time work.

Job Sharing: “I think there’s a real opportunity to look at senior roles — not the president or the CEO necessarily but maybe a vice president of sales — and have two people who have a lot of experience and can bring a wealth of knowledge to that role and job share in a way that’s untraditional,” she said.

Redmond knows of a manufacturing company where a team of seniors job-share the sales and delivery operation. “They manage the time among themselves. They don’t require the same level of supervision that somebody more junior might,” she said.

Mentors/Coaches: A senior employee may no longer want to perform full-time field work, but he or she may be interested in sharing wisdom, experience and skills as a mentor who rides along with new technicians for certain types of jobs or for specific times of the day or week. Employees with excellent customer service and sales skills can provide “curbside coaching” to employees following interactions with customers, providing feedback on what went well and how the junior employee can improve.

Trainers: Ongoing training is essential in pest management and senior employees may be well-suited to develop and facilitate these sessions. They can share their own experience in handling typical and challenging pest situations and create a training program based on the needs they see in the field.

Project Workers: Older workers can be an asset for projects that you’ve been meaning to tackle (but don’t have the time for) and that align with their specific skills. “As long as the deliverables are clear and the resources are clear, let them at it,” says Redmond. Likewise, senior workers may be interested in taking on part-time and seasonal roles at the company.

Networkers and Collaborators: Older workers may have extensive networks that they have built over their careers that they’re willing to tap for recruiting, outreach or special projects, says Redmond. Likewise, they may be an excellent addition to your advisery board, think tank or strategic planning team. “Collaboration is about seeking diverse perspectives,” reminds Redmond.

START THE CONVERSATION NOW. Don’t wait until an employee’s last day to ask about his or her future plans. “It’s tricky...to be asking people, ‘When are you planning on retiring?’ if they’re not forthcoming about it,” reminds Redmond.

Still, in one-on-one conversations with employees, discuss how the employee might help with that transition when he or she does decide to retire, and ask about the role he or she would like to play in it, she says. With the employee’s input, you then can define the project or scope of work, the deliverables, the necessary resources, compensation, and the hours he or she will work, Redmond says.

Companies need a plan to continuously facilitate knowledge transfer; it’s not just a retirement issue. At any time an employee may abruptly leave or become injured and no longer be able to work.

That’s why Redmond urges companies to host regular lunch-and-learn events so people in different roles can share their knowledge with the broader organization. “That whole notion of information sharing doesn’t have to be for people who are leaving but people doing the job as well,” she says.

“There’s an awful lot that goes into learning a job and learning a company and learning an industry and we’re trying to figure out ways to share that information so companies can continue to thrive,” adds Redmond.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.