What older workers should seek in a last job

Janet Kidd Stewart
Tribune News Service

College graduates get a lot of advice about what to look for in a first job, but what should older workers seek in a last job?

Retiree health benefits, long-term care insurance, retirement-income planning advice or a robust alumni networking program might top the list, depending on your own situation, of course.

“I do hear late-career candidates talk in terms of having that last, big job in them,” said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an outplacement firm. “What’s important to them in terms of benefits depends on how prepared they are for retirement already.”

When negotiating the particulars of the job, think shorter term, Challenger says.

“With that last job, you want that to be more front-loaded with salary, with less pay at risk down the road,” he said, unlike taking a job at mid-career or earlier, when it might make more sense to take a chance on stock options or on big raises as the company grows.

On the other hand, deferring some compensation can help lower an employee’s taxable income as pay gets stretched into the first year or two of retirement. If your company offers that, keep the amount of pay that is subject to performance measures to a minimum, Challenger said.

If it’s your last rodeo, at least be sure to explore how your new company stacks up in the areas that mean the most to you:

Retiree health: Don’t hold your breath for company-subsidized health insurance if you plan to retire prior to Medicare eligibility. Even on the Fortune list, seven of the 30 companies don’t offer it, and very few other employers do. So if you’re thinking this last job will end in early retirement, be aware and realize it may be easier to negotiate higher pay than these disappearing benefits.

Among the exceptions is Milwaukee-based financial services firm Robert W. Baird, which still offers pre-Medicare retiree health, as well as subsidized long-term care insurance, profit sharing and phased retirement programs, among other benefits.

Phased retirement: Jan Whittaker, an operations administrative specialist at Baird who is retiring this summer after a 47-year career, will take advantage of another retiree program, coming back as a fill-in worker occasionally. Recently, she took in a company webinar on how to make the best Medicare choices.

“I knew I needed to feel confident in my decision to retire, and the company has a wealth of information available,” she said.

Second-career building: Retirees hoping to downshift into a second career after their last big job should look for opportunities to mentor — and be mentored by their younger colleagues, who can teach them new skills, experts said.

At Intuitive Research and Technology Corp. in Huntsville, Alabama, No. 1 on the Fortune list, soon-to-be retirees are matched with teams of younger workers to share specific skills.

Along the same lines, look for a job with a clear mission.

When she was interviewing at Intuitive Research a decade ago, Juanita Phillips, director of human resources, was drawn to what she called the integrity of top management at the engineering contractor, which has since led to a long track record of careful hiring and no layoffs.

“I don’t know of another government contractor that has grown like we have without layoffs,” she said. For a human resources executive, that’s a pretty good talking point.