Economy & Finance

The best place to work after age 50? NIH, says AARP

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CHICAGO (Reuters) – Phil Lenowitz works in Bethesda, Maryland, but a year ago he moved to Asheville, North Carolina. At age 63, Lenowitz spends three weeks each month in Bethesda, where he is deputy director of human resources at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and one week in Asheville with his wife Peggy, 62.

Lenowitz is on track to retire in Asheville – somewhere down the road. The current split schedule hasn’t caused any friction at work.

“My boss has no problem with it, so long as I’m not out of town for important events and meetings,” Lenowitz says.

The flexible work arrangement is no accident. Forty-seven percent of the NIH workforce is over age 50. And the renowned federal medical research powerhouse has developed an impressive arsenal of employee benefits aimed at retaining older workers.

On Monday, NIH was named the best employer for older workers by AARP and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). NIH topped the organizations’ 2013 ranking of the 50 best employers for workers over 50 – an award that aims to recognize employer programs that help retain, retrain, engage and recruit older workers.

The list is dominated by healthcare organizations. This year, 41 percent of the top 50 employers are hospitals, health insurers or, in NIH’s case, a medical research organization.

“Healthcare organizations see the aging of their clientele, so they know the importance of having healthcare providers that have a clear empathy with the patients,” says Jean Setzfand, AARP’s vice president for financial security. “They also have the ability to provide flexible work schedules because they operate 24/7 anyway – and that’s something experienced workers really like.”

Healthcare companies are more concerned than most about losing experienced, highly-skilled employees, says Brad Lawson, chief executive officer of YourEncore, a company that recruits retired scientists, engineers and physicians for consulting engagements with large corporations.

“Healthcare reform has just exploded demand for products and services,” Lawson says. “Employers are implementing programs to engage or reclaim skilled employees to help meet the demand.”

The other industries that dominate AARP’s rankings are education (17 percent of winners), financial services and government (9 percent each). You can view the full list on AARP’s website (

At NIH, the workforce tends to be older because scientists start their working careers later than most.

“By the time someone arrives here, they’ve finished their advanced training and could be in their late 30s,” Lenowitz says. “They start later and they tend to stay around longer. Research is very important to them and making a difference in peoples’ lives is important to them. We have people who have been here for 50 years.”

At the same time, employee retention is important to the NIH because it competes head-to-head with pharmaceutical companies and large medical centers that can pay much larger salaries.

“We can’t compete with the big bucks, but we have a mission that is second to none – improving the life and health of all Americans,” Lenowitz says. “And we have the flexibility that makes this a great place to work.”

On average, NIH staffers stay on five years past their retirement eligibility date and the average tenure of employees over age 50 is 18.4 years.

NIH was honored for its general health benefits, a fitness program specifically tailored for the needs of older workers and its flexible work arrangements. Lenowitz says those include the ability to work a split schedule – employees can take a break in the middle of the day if they have family obligations and come back later.

“We’re also piloting a leave of absence bank,” Lenowitz says. “Employees can donate any leave time they may have accumulated during a year that they didn’t use, then, if someone else has a medical illness, they can apply for a grant of time from the bank.”

The best companies for 50-plus workers aren’t just focused on experienced workers, according to Setzfand.

“These companies aren’t so focused on experienced workers that they aren’t paying attention to the new generation of the workforce,” Setzfand notes, adding that the focus is on a multi-generational workforce with formal mentoring programs between experienced and new workers.

Indeed, that’s been one of the most valuable rewards of NIH’s retention efforts, Lenowitz says.

“If any employer thinks they can get rid of someone who has been around a long time and replace her with someone cheaper, they’re making a mistake,” Lenowitz says. “What you want to do is harness the energy and knowledge of the older worker and transmit it to the coming generation. These are the folks who know how to make the place run.”

(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

For more from Mark Miller, see

(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here. Editing by Lauren Young)

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