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Is This America's Best Employer For Older Workers?

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NIH BETHESDA
** CORRECTED VERSION ** Dr. Edmund Tramont, chief of the National Institutes of Health AIDS Division, stands in the Natcher Building on the NIH campus during a break at an AIDS symposium, in Bethesda, Md., Monday, Dec. 13, 2004. In 2002, President Bush targeted $500 million to combat the spread of AIDS from mother to child in Africa using the drug nevirapine. According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, the National Institutes of Health chose not to inform the White House about the | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue

By Richard Harris

These are the times that try older workers’ souls.

If you're over 50 and have a job, you may be living in fear that you'll be the first to go in the next round of layoffs. If you're already out of work, you may see age discrimination as your constant companion on the job hunt.

Imagine, then, an employer that not only welcomes 50+ workers, but recruits them and offers a smorgasbord of benefits such as flexible schedules; telecommuting; emergency, vetted back-up elder care and low-impact exercise classes, such as Zumba.

The NIH Embraces 50+ Employees

Welcome to the sprawling 322-acre campus of the National Institutes of Health (the NIH), a complex of 27 federal institutes and centers in Bethesda, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. (Annual budget: $30 billion.) Because of the way it has embraced 50+ employees, the NIH just may be America’s best employer for older workers.

It may also offer a glimpse into the future of work.

By 2020, 55 percent of the civilian labor force will be 55 and over, up from 13 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Labor Department. But today, about half of the NIH’s 20,000 employees are over 50.

They’re not all brainiacs either (though many are). The NIH’s older workers range from bench scientists doing biomedical lab work to administrative professionals in human resources to doctors and nurses in the NIH hospital. Many are researchers with Ph.Ds or MDs, who came to the NIH in their late 30's or early 40's, embarking on a scientific career that can last a lifetime.

A 95-Year-Old Researcher On Staff

The average age of an NIH employee is 48; Dr. Herbert Tabor is nearly twice that. Last year, the distinguished 95-year-old biomedical researcher was honored for 70 years of service there.

By comparison, 83-year-old Dr. Thomas Waldmann, world renown in the field of immunology, is a relative newcomer, arriving at the NIH during the Eisenhower Administration. His discoveries have led to clinical trials and treatments for various diseases.

"It's like dominoes. You never finish. You always want to see projects to the end," Waldmann says. "When you see a patient who's alive who might not have been without some of your drug therapy, it's a thrill." He has no plans to retire, setting his sights on "a therapy for the worst t-cell malignancies, like pancreatic cancer."

Why the NIH Keeps Older Workers

At the NIH, retaining older workers isn’t altruistic, it’s born out of a research mission that demands patience.

"Science, in general, works on a different time frame than the rest of the world," says Phil Lenowitz, who was the NIH’s Deputy Director of Human Resources before shifting to part-time senior adviser, at 64.

Lenowitz, who calls himself “the poster boy for retaining the older worker” is now employed at the NIH two days a week, three weeks a month, from his home in Asheville, N.C. and commutes to Bethesda one week a month. He wears shorts when he telecommutes, but still sports a shirt and tie — especially for videoconferencing ("It's a good reminder I'm working.").

Becoming an older-worker nirvana has also been an intentional goal of the NIH.

The Quest to Be the Best

In 2007, at a conference of public sector HR managers, Lenowitz saw a newspaper article about AARP’s 50 best companies for workers over 50. He noticed there wasn't a single federal, state or local agency on the AARP list and boldly predicted to the conferees that the NIH would be on it next year.

Sure enough, the NIH broke into the AARP list at No. 11 and last year, topped its national rankings. (The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College has also praised the NIH for being a prized employer of older workers.)

The NIH scored these honors, in part, because it actively recruits workers at 50+ job fairs and its scientists attend professional meetings where they sometimes persuade older colleagues to come to the NIH.

Mentoring Is in the Mission

The organization has a culture of older scientists passing on wisdom to younger clinical and research fellows who come from all over the world.

"We train. We teach. We mentor. It's part of our mission," says Julie Berko, 44, Director of NIH's Workforce Relations Division, a Hodgkin's Lymphoma survivor who first came to the NIH as a patient in a clinical trial.

The recognition the NIH has received has not gone unnoticed in the federal government. “We’re getting calls from other agencies, asking about our programs for older workers,” Berko says.

Teaching Zumba on the Job

Looking to work full-time at a place that respected work/life balance, Ileana Turner, 57, joined the NIH in 2010 as an Executive Assistant in the Office of Human Resources. She also became a licensed Zumba instructor and now leads dance classes twice a week tailored to older workers, in the NIH fitness center.

Not interested in Zumba? The NIH also has a staff orchestra and offers opportunities for volunteering at The Children's Inn, where kids come from around the world for treatment of rare diseases.

Older Workers and the Pay Issue

Although some firms claim they can’t afford to keep employees in their 50s and 60s because they cost too much, at the NIH “we don’t see older workers as sucking up the big pay,” Lenowitz says.

Sure, the NIH doesn’t have to worry about keeping shareholders happy. But Lenowitz bristles at the notion that it’s somehow buffered from market pressures. “Congress limits what we can pay scientists and when people work for us, ethics rules forbid them from supplementing their income, so we’re at a disadvantage at buying talent,” he says.

The Future of U.S. Workplaces

While few employers have older workers in mind as much as the NIH, more probably will in coming years.

“Older workers are changing the workplace to an extent women did 30 years ago when they started entering the force in greater numbers,” says Deborah Banda, AARP’s interim Vice President of financial security and project manager for AARP’s latest list of best companies. “What older workers are doing in the workplace is going to trickle down to all generations.”

Banda says the NIH and others recognizing the value of older workers have figured out it’s not just a “do-good thing” but a “smart business decision” to hold on to your experienced employees. She says the cost of recruiting and training a new employee can be three times the salary of an older worker.

Retirement? Not Yet

And employees of the NIH rarely want to leave. Only six or seven percent retire in their first or second year of eligibility. (The federal government allows early retirement after 25 years of service.)

Retirement isn't yet on Turner's mind. Catching her breath after leading her Zumba class in a lunch-time workout, Turner says that as an older worker, she feels welcome at the NIH.

"You start to doubt yourself as you age, but here, your experience counts,” she says. “I have a voice at the table when we have meetings. I can play a part in the hiring process of someone that tomorrow could cure cancer or Alzheimer's. It kind of gives you goosebumps."

Read more from Next Avenue:
Laid off at 60: What to do next
How to find a legit work-from-home job
8 ways not to lose the new job you finally landed

Earlier on HuffPost50:

What Post 50s Want Most In Retirement
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