His wife had a long list of household chores ready for Bob Briggs when he retired from his government job in 1999. Fix a few loose door knobs. Paint a few rooms.
''It took about a month to do all the things on the list,'' he said. ''Then I realized I really needed something else to do.''
So Briggs took a job at his local Home Depot in suburban Atlanta, working two or three days a week in the garden section. It was a big change from the job he retired from, program manager for child welfare in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But Briggs soon earned the title of master gardener.
It turns out that Home Depot and many other companies may be in need of more workers like Briggs as the baby boom generation heads toward retirement.
The U.S. work force, which grew at nearly 30 percent in the 1970s, slowed to a 12 percent growth rate this decade and last and is expected to drop to 2 percent to 3 percent growth in the 2010s and 2020s, according to Labor Department figures analyzed by the Concours Group, a management consulting firm.
As a result, human resources consultants are warning big companies to come up with strategies to entice boomers to keep working after retirement.
''I know there are many employers who say 'I will deal with this issue when it hits me in the face,''' said Deborah Russell, manager of economic security and work at the AARP. ''I guess my response would be it's going to hit you in the face soon.''
It may be a little hard to believe for a generation of workers that has seen so many jobs sent to other countries, or eliminated due to advances in technology. But to employers who even now are struggling to fill jobs in health care, retail and government services, it's already a big issue.
Atlanta-based Home Depot, which is opening 175 new stores in 2004, has about 35,000 jobs to fill this year, and recognizes that boomers' retirement will leave it with even more openings. The company has teamed with the AARP to try to find workers like Briggs.
Even some high-tech companies are anticipating a disruptive ''brain drain.''
''We've got a demographic train wreck coming down the tracks,'' said Jeff Chambers, vice president of human resources at SAS, a privately held software company with the rare distinction of being singled out by ''60 Minutes'' as a model employer for the benefits and perks it bestows on employees.
Those perks like free onsite doctor's visits and subsidized daycare have kept the company's turnover rate at 3 percent, Chambers said. But looking ahead, the company is trying to do even more. SAS recently added health benefits for retirees, hoping that will keep older employees from leaving for jobs that offer them insurance for their senior years.
And Chambers is considering other enticements to keep boomers in their jobs as long as possible perhaps extended time off to travel, or when a grandchild is born. ''I'm sitting here thinking ... if you're a high-level, high-demand technical person, why couldn't an employer say 'Do you want to work 1,200 hours a year?''' he said.
Other companies are talking about phased or flexible retirements among other incentives to keep boomers on the job.
''Three quarters of the companies we deal with today are utilizing that strategy,'' said Evan Burks of the staffing firm Comforce Corp.
Of course, the potential labor shortage may only be a problem for employers if it's accompanied by a surging economy, according to Paul Osterman, deputy dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management. A slow economy might cause some companies to welcome the retirement of the boomers, especially since there are huge incentives for them to make room for younger workers or continue to offshore what jobs they can.
''People are more expensive when they're older,'' Osterman said.
Still, there are bound to be essential boomer employees who companies will want to keep past retirement age, said Bob Morison, director of research at the Concours Group.
Concours recently issued a research report to 30 major corporations that gives tips on keeping boomers happy as they near retirement. Besides encouraging flexible retirement arrangements, Concours suggested allowing employees in the middle of their careers a chance to reinvent and redirect their jobs, so that their work has more meaning as they approach retirement.
For Bob Briggs, his reincarnation as a master gardener has proven more important than the money he makes at the job. After all, he says, much of his pay goes right back to Home Depot for plants and supplies for his own garden.
But Briggs likes getting out of the house and meeting new people. He enjoys it when young couples he has helped return to show off babies, or pictures of their gardens. And he thinks the job is helping to keep him fit both mentally and physically.
''I took a pedometer into work one day,'' he said. ''I walked 13 miles that day.''
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