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Baby Boomer Brain Drain: Knowledge Transfer Strategies

By Sherman Morrison
August 16, 2019

Millennials became the largest segment of the workforce in 2016, displacing the Baby Boomers who are now retiring in droves. Media headlines are sounding the alarm as the growing wave of retiring Boomers is putting a huge strain on the social security system many people rely on at least in part for income in retirement. What’s not getting as much attention as it should, however, is the “brain drain” effect as Boomers exit the workforce, taking with them all their general experience and wisdom acquired throughout their adult working lives. Even more critical is the specific knowledge they have about the last company where they worked at their time of retirement. Companies that want to avoid a major Baby Boomer brain drain must prioritize knowledge transfer strategies to capture essential information before it’s too late.

Baby Boomer Retirement by the Numbers

According to the Pew Research Center, it was 2011 when the oldest members of the Baby Boomer generation reached the standard retirement age of 65. In terms of the workforce, it began a two-decade period during which no fewer than 10,000 Boomers reach retirement age every single day. And while that rate will then start to decline, it won’t be until 2030 when all of them will be 65 or older. When that happens, fully 18% of the population of the US will be 65 and older.

Thanks to the lasting impacts of the Great Recession on retirement savings, there will no doubt be a lot of Boomers who will attempt to keep working past age 65 to make ends meet, but the plain fact of the matter is that most of them are going to retire and exit the workforce, resulting in the biggest “brain drain” effect corporate America has ever witnessed. Are companies ready, willing, and able to mitigate the effects this brain drain will have? It will depend on how agile they are in creating and implementing knowledge transfer strategies.

Why Knowledge Transfer Strategies are Critical

I recall a number of years ago when a local stage college facing declining enrollments and financial challenges opted to offer early retirement to many of its employees who had been there the longest. Why? Because they could replace older, more expensive employees with younger, less expensive employees and save a ton of money. But the first thing that popped into my mind upon hearing of this was what they were going to lose in making this move – all the institutional knowledge held within in the longest-tenured employees. I couldn’t help but wonder if, in the final analysis, the college would reap the financial benefits of cutting costs only to discover they did more harm than good through a self-inflicted and sudden brain drain.

The knowledge loss can be all too real and profound, as explained by long-time General Mills employee Dave Toblemann, who retired several years ago. In an interview with National Public Radio, he put it this way: “Let’s say you have 30 people retire in a year and the average years of experience is 30 years. So you just had 1,000 years walk away. That’s hard to lose.” As you might expect, workers of the Baby Boomer generation are more likely to have been employed in the same company for far longer than is expected of today’s younger workers. This makes the Baby Boomer brain drain effect more serious for any company with a higher percentage of Boomers in their workforce.

Industries Facing Serious Brain Drain Challenges

While the Baby Boomer brain drain is affecting all sectors of the economy, there can be no doubt that manufacturing is facing the biggest crisis. Here’s how it was laid out last year in an IndustryWeek article:

“According to research from the Society for Human Resource Management, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the percentage of boomers retiring has doubled over the past eight years and will continue to increase until the last of the boomers reach 65 around 2030. This is particularly challenging for manufacturers. Not only are more than a quarter of manufacturing workers over the age of 55, but the BLS also notes that manufacturers have the highest tenure compared to other sectors. That translates into more institutional knowledge within the sector, which is now steadily declining, as is the productivity that these experts bring. In a survey of manufacturing HR professionals, 34% said this would be a real problem, and 11% said it would be a crisis by 2025.”

A distinguished professional approaching retirement walks to work in the rain.
Dan Formsma, Unsplash.

Another industry being hit hard by the retiring boomer brain drain is the insurance business. The average age of insurance company employees was in the late 50s as of several years ago, and the industry has been discussing the crisis in earnest since then. In many cases, they’re explicitly trying to entice recent retirees back into the business with more flexible work hours, better health care benefits, and opportunities to mentor younger employees.

It might also just come down to what the situation is at any given company, regardless of the industry. Michelin America, for example, has 40% of its workforce getting close to retirement age, and the average tenure among those employees is 25 years. If they all retire over a five-year period, the company will experience a major brain drain. The company is trying to slow the process down through phased retirement, as well as offering part-time hours to many retirees. The critical areas being affected the most at Michelin are technical maintenance and long-standing vendor/client relationships.

Knowledge Transfer Strategies

When you start digging into the details of mitigating the brain drain effect, you’ll find many articles related to prevention – ways to keep key employees happy in order to retain them longer. But this tip simply doesn’t apply as much to workers who are retiring. Most aren’t just exiting a company, they’re exiting the workforce for good. This is why companies must prioritize knowledge transfer strategies aimed squarely at capturing the knowledge of retiring Boomers. Specific strategies include the following:

Cross Training: While many companies are at least vaguely aware that robust cross-training throughout the company can have big benefits, the Baby Boomer brain drain makes it one of the most important knowledge transfer strategies companies should be using now. Whether it’s within a department or across departments, there should be multiple people who could step in and be effective at performing the duties of a retirement-age worker who could leave at any moment. And then the company has at least one person in-house with enough of an understanding to train a new hire when that happens.

Job Shadowing: While the cross training strategy is a program that should be put into place throughout a company on an ongoing basis, job shadowing is for when the situation is urgent. As soon as a company finds out a key employee is going to retire (hopefully at least a week or more in advance), someone should immediately be assigned to shadowing the retiring worker to learn the ropes of what they do. For manual and physical labor positions, this could even include making video recordings to capture the details of the how the work is done.

Employee Exit Interview: The exit interview is typically a process HR handles with departing employees to learn from their experience working at the company. It can also be turned into a last resort way of addressing brain drain from retiring employees. Use it to learn more about their daily activities, the status of important projects in progress, and any other vital information that might otherwise not be documented.

Hire Them Back: Some retirees may be willing to jump back into some kind of role at a company, which effectively extends the horizon for making knowledge transfer happen before it’s completely off the table. Not long after previously-mentioned General Mills employee Dave Toblemann retired, he was back at the company, but this time through a staffing agency specializing in retiree placement. Companies can also bring retirees back into the fold as consultants. IBM in Belgium does something similar with a company it set up called Skill Team to employ those forced into retirement when the company needed to cut costs. The retirees work 58% of the time they were putting before, and make about 88% of what they were previously making. These can be win-win scenarios where retirees extend their work-life and compensation while the company retains a significant chunk of its knowledge pool.

eLearning: The rising Millennial segment of the workforce wants their workplace learning to be available on-demand through engaging eLearning experiences that make use of all the latest technologies such as mobile learning, video content, gamification, virtual reality, and so on. Companies actively capturing retiring boomer knowledge need to do so in ways that facilitate incorporating it into the kinds of eLearning experiences Millennials demand.

Given what’s at stake for so many companies facing Baby Boomer brain drain, now is the time to put knowledge transfer strategies into place.

Featured Image: Johan Mouchet, Unsplash.

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