Older workers: At this company, average employee is 65
Half of a Boston company’s workforce is part-time senior citizens, countering myths about value of older workers. No Freedom 55 here
By Adam Mayers, Toronto Star, June 18, 2013
NEEDHAM, MASS.—When a special order comes in that calls for a steady hand and a sure eye, the work at Vita Needle often goes to a machine operator called Bill Ferson.
For the past 25 years, at Vita’s factory in suburban Boston, Ferson has been taking very small, hollow stainless steel tubes, thinner than a piece of spaghetti, and shaping one end to make high quality needles and probes.
Ferson is 94.
Vita Needle is his second career. For 39 years before joining them, he had a first career at another company making fine measuring instruments.
“I only planned to work for a few months, but I’ve been here ever since,” he says.
Ferson is part of a unique workforce at the family-owned firm that may offer a glimpse of all our futures. Half of Vita’s 49 employees are 75 or older. Half the workforce is part-time and the average age of all employees is 65.
Ferson recently became the oldest worker when Rita Finnegan, who turned 100 in 2012, upped and quit.
“Her health is fine,” says 30-year-old Frederick Hartman, a third-generation member of the family to work at Vita. “She wanted to keep working, but her family moved 30 miles away and she couldn’t handle the commute. We miss her.”
Fred Vettese, chief actuary with Toronto pension consultants Morneau Shepell, says the day is coming when there will be more companies like Vita. Forget Freedom 55, he says. Think Freedom 67 and beyond.
“The cohort that’s growing the fastest in the workforce is the 60-plus group,” he says.
The reason for the growth is that baby boomers want to keep going and the economy will need them. As this demographic moves into retirement, it will leave gaps. There aren’t enough younger people to fill the spots.
Vita, which means “life” in Latin, makes a range of specialty needles and probes. It takes the tubes and turns them into such things as the darts used to tranquilize animals, needles used in hospitals, and medical research and probes to test the temperature of food. Its products may be found at your local garage in the gasoline pump or as part of a tire pressure gauge.
The company was founded in 1932, during the Great Depression, when Frederick Hartman’s great-great-grandfather, an engineer, lost his job as a textile mill plant manager. So he went into the needle business, buying a nondescript building in downtown Needham that had been a theatre.
Vita’s success in employing a large workforce of part-time retirees shatters most of the myths surrounding older workers. These employees offer many advantages. They are reliable and pay attention to detail. They aren’t as fast as younger workers, but they are more concerned about getting it right. They need less supervision. They have a strong work ethic. They understand teamwork.
“We don’t have any prerequisites when it comes to hiring,” says Frederick Hartman Sr., Vita’s president. “What we want is the desire to work, the ability to get along and a willingness to take on new challenges. The rest we can train.”
These employees have helped the company to attain record sales in 19 of the past 22 years. It posts growth of about 5 per cent a year.
“It’s a pretty good trend,” the younger Hartman says.
Vita began hiring local retirees in the mid-1980s. It couldn’t find workers willing to commute to Needham, which is about 30 kilometres west of Boston. The word went out that Vita was looking for part-timers who were retired, regardless of their previous work history.
The first hired was Bill Ferson, who was 69 and three months into retirement. He was getting under his wife’s feet, so she told him to go find something to do.
“Vita had placed an ad that said they were looking for seniors, so I went to talk to Fred and he hired me.”
Ferson was born in Moncton, N.B., but has lived in the Boston area most of his life. He has no use for computers or email and still uses a rotary-dial phone at home. He confesses to a love of Oldsmobiles, lamenting the passing of heavy, beamy sedans in favour of smaller, less substantial cars.
He now lives alone. He bought a new Chevy Impala a few weeks ago and makes the one-kilometre drive to work most days at 4:30 a.m. It takes him two minutes.
“But I’m not the first one in,” he’s quick to add.
Ferson works eight hours a day, four days a week, just three hours shy of the 35 hours that legally divides part-time from full-time work. Below 35 hours and the company does not have to provide benefits; above and it must.
“I used to work the max, but I cut back a bit,” he says. “I’m not 21 anymore.”
Ferson operates a swaging machine, which turns and crimps the tubes to create a round or pointy end. The work is more art than science and so mass production is not practical.
Ferson had never operated a swaging machine previously and Vita did not have one because it was contracting out the work. But Frederick Hartman Sr. decided Ferson had the right skills to bring the work in-house, so he bought the machine and let Ferson figure it out.
“Bill was courageous enough to give it a try,” Hartman Sr. says. “He taught himself what to do.”
He’s been doing it ever since, creating a new line of business for the company. He has turned out hundreds of thousands of the medical needle assemblies, temperature probes and industrial dispensing needles.
When Ferson’s wife Martha died in 2001 he thought of quitting, but his doctor urged him to keep working.
“I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for this job,” he says. “It lets me use the stuff upstairs in my brain. I see people, I socialize. They pay me. ”
That bundle of intangibles is why many of the seniors work at Vita. It’s true that some need to work because they don’t have savings or adequate pensions. For others like Ferson, it gives a sense of purpose, it helps them stay intellectually and socially engaged, and the paid work makes them feel that they are making a valuable contribution.
As part-timers they are also cheaper to employ because, as retirees, medical and dental bills are covered by government programs, not the company. Vita includes them in a generous profit-sharing plan. At the end of the year everyone is eligible for a bonus. Typically it’s four to eight weeks pay. In some years it is as much as three months.
Mike LaRosa, Vita’s operations manager, rides herd on the shop floor, where the tasks are well-defined and simple. Workers tackle them at their own pace. The jobs include machining the parts, assembling them, checking quality and shipping.
LaRosa has to keep on top of schedules where people take unpaid time off for holidays, medical appointments, a grandchild’s school concert or other life events. One employee just started “summer hours.” He doesn’t work Mondays; that leaves him free to have a hassle-free commute from his cottage on Cape Cod, about a 45-minute drive away.
Bob O’Mara, 76, is a Yale graduate and chemical engineer. He once built nuclear power plants. Now he puts in 20 hours a week in four- or five-hour days assembling needles and valves. He takes Thursdays off because he sings in a male choir and may be away for a month at a time because he likes to travel.