Some have nicknamed it the “silver tsunami.”
Each day about 10,000 baby boomers retire, according to the Pew Research Center, a mass exodus from the workforce that has gained steam in recent years as America’s post-World War II generation hits its mid-60s.
Employers around the country are in the midst of a hard transition, losing institutional knowledge while trying to attract fresh talent. It’s no different for Eastern Idaho’s largest employer, Idaho National Laboratory, and its contractor Battelle Energy Alliance.
The lab, which employs just shy of 4,000, is preparing to undergo a major workforce transition over the next several years as the number of researchers and other staff retiring each year accelerates. In many departments, that overhaul already is underway. INL has hired more than 650 new workers this fiscal year, the most since Battelle took over the contract in 2005.
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“It’s easily twice what we’ve done before,” said Toni Vandel, an INL human resources manager. “My staff has been very busy.”
Plenty of those new workers replaced recent retirees, Vandel said, but a large amount also are tied to the lab growing again in several departments.
The recent hiring spree signals a dramatic turnaround from just two years ago. Hit with budget constraints, Battelle trimmed 11 percent of its workforce through layoffs and attrition in fiscal year 2013, including not replacing retirees.
As of Sept. 1, 131 people had retired from the lab so far this fiscal year. In all of 2014, there were 146 retirements.
That number will soon grow dramatically, Vandel said. About 30 percent of lab employees are older than 50. In five years, she expects there to be about 100 more people retiring each year than now, and that pace will continue for about five years.
Like INL, other regional companies are just starting to face a similar challenge, said Chris St Jeor, a regional economist with the Idaho Department of Labor.
“We’ve expected the wave of retirees to show up in the workforce for a while now,” he said. “But because of some of the residual effects from the recession, some people have been forced to work longer than they expected.”
Now, he said, people are feeling more financially comfortable.
Certain lab positions will be especially hard-hit, Vandel said. They include electrical lineman, instrument technicians, and positions in emergency preparedness and facility protection. It requires planning well ahead so there isn’t a gap in being able to perform work, she said.
“INL isn’t about to collapse,” Vandel said. “That’s not the case at all. But we have a challenge and we need to address that, and we’re addressing it just like everyone else in the country.”
FINDING THE REPLACEMENTS
Yet in some respects, INL has it harder than other employers because of the specialized research work it does.
There are 360 open positions now at the lab, though some haven’t been advertised. Vandel said because so many companies and government agencies are looking to fill openings simultaneously, it can be hard to hire for any job — even lower-level positions such as custodians and laborers.
“But then you narrow it down to these very unique types of skills that only a few people in the world have,” she said. “And five companies want them and there’s only four of them.”
One such example, she said, is finding people for the lab’s cybersecurity research department, which also happens to be one of several departments seeing rapid growth. Finding the right candidate for such a specialized position often requires going well beyond a job posting and traditional recruiting methods. INL often will turn to external recruiting subcontractors with specific areas of expertise to find the right people.
Still, a large contingent of the lab’s new employees come from traditional recruiting pathways, such as college career fairs.
Top schools INL recruits from are Idaho State University, University of Idaho, Brigham Young University and Utah State, lab spokeswoman Misty Benjamin said. The most common degrees held by new hires are mechanical, electrical and nuclear engineering, as well as chemistry and computer science, she said.
Other employees were brought on after showing potential in INL’s growing internship program. The lab has about 300 interns each year, most in the summer.
Zach Spielman, a human factors scientist, interned for a year at the lab before being hired full time in June.
He said he looked closely at fast-paced researcher jobs for companies located in bigger cities. But the work they were doing didn’t sound as satisfying to him. One company in Chicago was working on designing a better oatmeal container.
“It was like, yeah, I could do that — or I could help sustain our nuclear power plants for years to come,” Spielman said.
SELLING EASTERN IDAHO
The lab does have some added challenges in recruiting that go beyond its work or facilities. There’s no big city next door. Winters can be brutal.
Vandel said her department tries to turn the tables on those types of perceptions. They tell candidates that, especially if you’re used to a long commute, the three hours to Salt Lake City isn’t so bad. And there are recreational opportunities, even in the cold.
“We don’t have the same sort of rat race you see in larger metropolitan areas,” Vandel said. “So it’s more of a sense of family in this community than you might get somewhere else like a New York or Boston.”
That can help convince people. So can talking up how impressive the seasons are — and the outdoor activities.
“I’m a big outdoors guy, so I don’t think I could be in a place where there is more to do or more to explore in such a close proximity,” said Spielman, who grew up in Idaho Falls and attended undergraduate and graduate school at the University of Idaho in Moscow.
Jeff Einerson, 60, is manager of the human factors, controls and statistics department, and Spielman’s boss. He has been at INL for 33 years.
He said he’s enjoyed the work, and like Spielman, enjoys the outdoors. He will be part of the lab’s workforce transition soon.
“I’ve never really had the urge to move anywhere else,” Einerson said. “I have lots of friends who spent their whole career here, and weren’t necessarily from the area.”
PROS, CONS OF A TRANSITION
There is a big downside for INL to losing veteran employees such as Einerson.
“The hard part is losing that institutional knowledge, because we have people who have committed their lives to INL,” Vandel said.
But the workforce transition period does provide an “ability to retool,” Vandel said. She said it’s a good chance to go and find new candidates that align closely to INL’s shifting vision, which is no longer solely tied to nuclear energy.
“Bringing in talent that has new and fresh ideas that we haven’t had here before — how could we possibly go wrong with that? We can’t,” she said.
It’s also a chance to work on the lab’s diversity, said Vandel. Right now INL is “pretty white and pretty male.”
A recent letter written by Deputy Laboratory Director Juan Alvarez, and published on social media, stressed that the lab is committed to adding “diverse talent.”
Vandel said the INL workforce looks similar to Idaho in terms of its minority populations. But the lab recruits nationally, and its workforce does not look like the nation.
“We have to work harder to encourage people to want to come to Idaho that are maybe of a different ethnic background,” she said. “Once we get them here, our community needs to be able to provide resources outside just what INL can do. We can’t do it all.”