Could older workers be the answer?
Baby bust, is making hiring difficult for retailers like Metro

Stuffing grocery bags. All it takes is a good pair of arms, a little energy, and the ability crank out the odd smile to keep customers happy. For decades it's been a steady entry-level part-time job for Quebec high school and Cegep students.

But according to Alain Picard, vice-president (human relations) at Metro Inc. Finding youngsters to fill what the company calls "wrapper" positions is getting harder. The same applies to many of its service department job categories.

"Work expectations are different among today's younger generation," said Picard. "Many live at home longer, so they don't need as much money. They just want to earn enough to spend during the weekend."

Picard isn't the only human resources manager experiencing this problem. Birth levels in generations following the baby boom flattened considerably. That means there are far few youngsters available. Despite the recession, help wanted signs are common in shop windows throughout the city.

Picard is on the front lines of many labour trends. Some human resources managers have trouble handling the hiring, termination and grievance issues of small workforces of say, a 100 employees. These problems must seem like small potatoes to Metro's human relations' boss.

Picard oversees labour relations issues that involve close to 100 different collective bargaining units. These encompass 8,280 of the company's 10,733 employees. Just last year, Metro negotiated and renewed 20 collective agreements covering 1,895 employees.

Despite this, Picard does not see labour relations as his biggest challenge. "Our dealings with the unions have gone quite well," said Picard. "We have not had a major work stoppage in about five years."

According to Picard, finding and motivating employees is his main problem.

"The food industry is very demanding," said Picard. "The hours are long. It sometimes involves weekend work and dealing with customers is not always easy. It takes a special type of person."

Working conditions at Metro stores differ based on whether they belong to the company, or are franchise operations. Stores often negotiate separate contracts, with profitable locations having more room to maneuver than those in a cash crunch do.

Service department workers, which includes cashiers, wrappers and shelf stuffers, can earn about $16.00 per hour at the top of the salary scale, but most start at close to minimum wage. In the past, these entry-level jobs typically attracted unskilled youngsters. But these are getting harder to find and keep.

"We've had to be creative, in providing new employees training, so they can move into more specialized high paying sections such as the butcher department," said Picard. "It's not in every business, that someone stating just out of high school, if he's good, can rise through the ranks to store manager."

While finding youngsters is getting more difficult, Picard saw a lot of older workers returning to the workforce after an early retirement among the 1,000 employees that joined the company last year. While he could not quantify the trend, he called it "noticeable"

"We are very happy to have them," said Picard. "Often someone who is a little older already has a pension or some savings, and is coming back to work, partly to stay active, and sometimes for social reasons."

With the vanguard of the baby-boom generation starting to retire - and not all of them voluntarily -workers returning to the labour market is going to be increasingly common, says Steven Appelbaum, a management professor at Concordia's John Molson School of Business.

"It's funny that you should call, I was just lecturing on that subject two days ago," said Appelbaum. "Older, returning workers, do have many advantages, and they are far more loyal to their employers, than younger kids. "

"Older workers are more flexible, with less turnover and absenteeism," said Appelbaum. "Although they do need more sick days, they only take those sick days when they really are sick. Younger workers expect to be paid when they don't use up their sick days."

"Companies that get rid of their older workers too soon are going to regret it. The university did it a few years ago, and now they are paying the price."

In fact according to Appelbaum, retired workers coming back into the labour force is a trend that is only going to increase. If that 's true, those smiles you get at Metro checkout counters, are increasingly going to have a few more wrinkles around them.


Photo Caption: According Alain Picard, vice-president, (human resources) at Metro Inc., youngsters have a much different attitude toward work than their parents did.



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