Older Workers, Pretty Please Apply

AARP Bulletin

A factory where the majority of workers are in their 70′s, 80′s, even 90′s

At a time when employers are often reluctant to hire older job applicants, one company not only embraces its mature workforce, but is becoming almost famous for it. The average age of employees of the Vita Needle factory in Needham, Mass., is 74. Of the 47 employees who work manufacturing medical needles, tubing and fabricated parts, just two are in their early 20s. They’re known as “the kids.”

Vita’s ultra-age-friendly policy is hardly hurting business; this year, the company is on track to bring in $11 million in gross sales. Vita president Fred Hartman, whose great-grandfather started the business in 1932 (and retired at age 97), says, “Young workers in their 50s and 60s are our burgeoning farm team! We don’t have old, we have experienced.”

Experience counts

Visitors seem surprised that Vita is able to be so productive and successful with an older workforce, says Frederick Hartman, 28, Vita’s director of marketing and engineering, son of the president, and the fifth generation in his family to join the company.

“But I’m not at all,” he says. “The older workers are loyal; many have worked here 10 to 15 years and feel a sense of community. They also feel pride that their finished product is often used in medical applications that can save someone’s life or make it better.”

Frederick Hartman acknowledges that some of the older ones work at a slower pace, but claims it doesn’t matter. “This is not a crack-the-whip company where you’re expected to turn out x number of parts per hour,” he says. “Quality of work compensates for slower speed. Attention to detail is also better. Damage to the company’s reputation is hard to repair.”

One recent morning, Rosa Finnegan, 99, who has worked at Vita since the tender age of 84, is checking by hand to make sure there are no burrs in the needles that are put into syringes. Nearby are two other workers in their 90s, five in their 80s, and almost a dozen in their 70s who work part-time.

Cross-training

Employing septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians means it’s not always business as usual, however. “As an operations manager running production, it’s challenging,” says Michael LaRosa, 52. “You have to do a lot of cross-training, since older people don’t just get colds and stay out of work for a day; they fall down or break their hip and are out for three months.” It may be extra work for LaRosa, but employees like learning different skills.

“It’s wonderful! There are so many things I am trained to do I can’t get bored,” says Finnegan, who last year at this time was in a nursing home for a month with nerve damage in her feet but now hitches a ride every day with a coworker to her 25-hour-a-week, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. job. “If I’m sick of doing one thing, they give me something else.”

Employees wind up at the dance-hall-turned-factory mostly through word of mouth, although the business sometimes recruits at senior centers and in local newspapers. Vita’s ads stress the diversity of tasks and flexible scheduling — one worker may choose to clock in at 5 a.m., another at 2 p.m. For now, the suburban company has stacks of applicants and little attrition.

It wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s and 1990s, Vita needed to expand, but there was a labor shortage. The only applicants were middle-age and older retirees. So the company decided to give it a shot. Management immediately recognized their work ethic, enthusiasm and excellent results. For three-quarters of employees, the factory job is their second career. The company has hired an eclectic mix: an engineer, circus performer, assembly line operator and waitress (Finnegan’s former profession).

The Vita appeal

With bare floors and rows of workers sitting on high, well-worn chairs over long wooden tables, there’s nothing cushy about the place. A bell alerts the mostly $11-to-$12-an-hour employees to their two 15-minute breaks and when they can eat lunch. Part-time workers don’t receive insurance or other benefits. So what’s the draw?

A paycheck is paramount for many, while it’s handy supplemental income for others. But even with minimum wage or slightly better rates, most stay for years because the job gives them a sense of purpose and belonging at a time that can otherwise be profoundly isolating. Robert Carr, 67, an eight-year Vita employee and former Postal Service carrier and supervisor, says his previous job as a security officer at a college was “solitary and I was lonely. People here are gregarious. You do your work and have some fun.”

Soon after retiring from his 39-year job at a gauge company, William Ferson, now 92, decided he’d work for just a few months at Vita. That was 23 years ago. Back then, he was bored hanging around the house, and his wife, used to having her own space, was thrilled when he answered an ad in the local paper. Now a widower, he works 28 hours, down from 35, and plans to stay “as long as I can.”

The job helps him pay for medications and other bills, but more important, “I’m with people my own age,” Ferson says. “My mind is active. I get up in the morning and have someplace to go and talk to my friends. It’s good therapy. My doctors have said, ‘Don’t stop working! It’s good for you.’ And they’re right!”

If Ferson or the others become ill and have to take off time, they don’t worry about losing their jobs. In its 79-year history, Vita has never laid off a worker or forced any to retire. When employees need time off, Vita hires temporary or summer help, who are often grandchildren or friends of current employees. “We believe part of the healing process is knowing they have someplace to go. We want them to know that their job is still here,” says LaRosa. Of course, they don’t always come back. “I dread those phone calls from a family member saying that an employee just can’t make it anymore.” He attends two to three workers’ funerals a year. “I worked at other places where people didn’t die. Here it’s a given.”

Intergenerational learning

Working at Vita is also a learning process for the not-so-old employees. Robert Kurkjian, 20, has been on the factory floor for four years while he attends community college. He used to think old people were all the same, but now he claims that it would be impossible to tell whether some of his coworkers are older unless you see them. Says Kurkjian: “I never expected to be friends with them, but I am.”

“They treat me almost like a grandchild. It makes me happy that when I get older, I will be able to live the way I do now and not have to change.” Kurkjian enjoys one coworker in particular: “This guy is 76 and parties more than I do! “

It’s not like Rosa Finnegan just calls it a day after work, either. Every Friday night, the soon-to-be centenarian goes out to dinner with two coworkers. “I love that there are a lot of older, retired people like me here. We all have some aches and pains,” she acknowledges.

She hopes to continue hiking up, then down, the formidable 19 steps it takes to get to the factory floor — what Fred Hartman calls “making use of our health program” — so she can celebrate her 100th birthday next February, on the job, surrounded by friends. In the meantime, even waiting for Saturday and Sunday to end can seem like an eternity. “I miss not coming to work on weekends,” says Finnegan. “By Monday I am dying to get back!”

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Award-winning writer specializing in aging and baby boomers for national and custom magazines, the web, companies, and organizations.

Print and Internet: features, news, Q & A’s, profiles, and ghostwriting. Author of two books, including a national book tour.

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Check out my latest work for AARP, inspiring people age 50+ for TIME, and my MetLife report on purpose in later life.

Recipient of two fellowships on aging from the New York Times Foundation and the MetLife Foundation.

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