The Older Worker Advantage

Excerpt from "The Older Worker Advantage: Making the Most of an Aging Workforce" by Gordon F. Shea and Adolf Haasen, © 2006.
Published by: Praeger Publishers, Westport CT.

Senior Citizens Only - The World of Vita Needle Co.

"Wow--this is unique." That's what Larry Christian thought when he joined Vita Needle Company of Needham, Massachusetts, back in 2002 and noticed all the senior citizens working in production. He had moved here from Illinois and had a human resources background from his previous job. "You come here and see what's happening--it was almost stunning," he marveled.

Vita Needle Company is a fourth-generation family business, founded in 1932 during the depression years. The company manufactures reusable needles for veterinary applications and for all kinds of industrial purposes, along with tubing, adapters, and fabricated parts. Over the years, it has built a reputation for quality, good price, performance, and reliable service.

"The company hasn't always hired retired people," Larry explained. "In the 1930s and 1940s they recruited regular workers. But in the last ten to fifteen years they mostly hired senior citizens."

Vita Needle Company is located in the middle of town in an old dance hall and former theater built in the 1920s. One can still appreciate the old stage with wonderful carved woodwork as well as the box office around the corner in one of the hallways. The production is set up on the old dance floor, revealing the original oak boards. Production stations are organized in rows with different pieces of equipment for cutting and grinding the tubing, for staking the needles into hubs, and for burnishing and polishing.

The surprising aspect was to see all the white-haired ladies and gentlemen sitting in front of the machines. Vita Needle Company employs about 35 workers in production, 95% of them part-time senior citizens. "They are in a group of their peers," Larry pointed out. "Every one of the people out there has a responsible job. They have work to get done and they get it done."

We had a little roundtable conversation with three of the production workers--with Rosa Finnegan, 93 years old and with about 9 years at Vita Needle Company, with Bill Ferson, age 86 and with more than 17 years with the company, and with Dick Tompkins, age 78, who joined the organization just 2 years ago.

Rosa Finnegan had worked as a waitress most of her life. "I retired at age 65," she said, "didn't enjoy it and went back to waitressing for a while." Rosa's husband had passed away, and her son with two grown-up grandchildren wasn't enough to keep her busy. "I was living alone," she continued, "and went to the Cape to live and didn't like it. When I came back here, I remembered about this place and that they hired older people. I asked for a job and they told me I could start tomorrow. I have been here ever since."

Rosa was trained by the shop manager. Was she afraid in the beginning, with all these machines? "No," she responded, "I was so anxious to find something to do that I just wanted to learn whatever they asked me to."

Bill Ferson was much better equipped for his job at Vita Needle Company. He had worked for almost 40 years for a manufacturer of measuring gauges and afterward joined his former boss in a new company, producing parts for gyroscopes. That venture lasted for another eight years until Bill decided to retire again.

"At my second retirement," he told us, "I was 69 years old. When I was out for a few months, I didn't like it. I was always active. Then I saw this little ad in the local paper, came down here, and they hired me. They wanted to put me to work right away, but I said: 'Wait a minute; my wife doesn't even know I am here.' She didn't know I was looking for a job. I left here, went home and told my wife: 'Guess what, I may go back to work tomorrow.' She said: 'Good. Gets you out of my hair.'" At that point, everyone around the table had a good laugh.

"I have been here for 17 years," Bill continued, "and I have no intention of giving up work. I think at our age if you are able to work, it's better for you. It keeps you sharp. And I am very happy to be with people my age. We get along good, (even when) we fight once in a while." Across the table Rosa was chuckling.

Dick Tompkins was employed by the railroad for almost 14 years and went on to work for different freight airlines, like the Flying Tigers, for another 26 years. At that point, Dick could have retired, but he decided to stay on for another 14 years in a sales capacity with a freight forwarder.

"Then I decided to retire," Dick said, "but after a few months, I got tired of sitting around. I wanted something to do and I always knew about Vita Needle. Then, when I saw their interview on 60 Minutes and their emphasis on senior citizens, I thought that's the place to go. I got interviewed and came to work here for almost two years now."

We asked how he felt about working on the production floor. "I don't work with machines," Dick explained. "When I came, they were shorthanded and needed somebody in packaging. I like it, it never stops, believe me. (In 2004) the company had a banner year, one of their best years. As we were discussing, they have a variety of products--some minute--they have to be counted and then packaged. You wouldn't believe the customer requests. Everyone wants it packaged differently, in a different set-up."

We questioned if the needles have some kind of standard packaging. "No, no," Dick went on, "it's variable, you wouldn't believe it. They (are packaged) six in a bag, loose, or packed on a card with cellophane around it. And then we put all types of different labels on them. Some don't want our label, to others it does not matter. There are lots of variables."

At that point, Bill Ferson chimed in: "I would like to put a little plug in for my coworker Rosa. At her 93 years of age, you would like to have six people her age working for you." We asked what he meant by "working for you." Was there a lot of structure? What about supervisors:

"There are Mike, Tim in production and Larry in customer service," Dick responded. "They (are available) for any questions we have." "They feed us the work," Bill added, "and we take it from there. We got them to fall back on."

But, when all of a sudden Mike, a younger guy, became their boss, how did they like that? "No problem," Bill said. "I went through the same experience. I worked myself up in my former company and then had 45 people under me. I had worked with Mike, before he became my boss. He had worked here part-time. I knew him; I knew his father before that and his grandparents before that. His father is my age, they owned the market."

We questioned if Bill ever had a problem with Mike and what he did about it. "Oh yeah," Bill reminisced, "we discussed it and talked it over. If we have some argument, we work it out. You do that no matter where you work."Rosa added: "If you can prove that you can do something better, different from what he tells you, he'll say: 'Well, let me see' and, usually, he'll go along with you. And no one says 'hurry up,' there is no pressure here."

Vita Needle Company always produced and sold reusable needles. Some years ago, the medical market changed over to disposable needles, and the company fell on hard times. They switched to a variety of new fields, getting into all kinds of specialized needles for industry and retail. They also started to manufacture and offer tubing and wires. Was it difficult to adapt to all these changes?

"No," was the unanimous response. Rosa added: "We all do different things and we all learn every step of the way. (Therefore) you really are not doing the same thing day in and day out. It's all very interesting because you are always learning something new."

As a matter of fact, Rosa, with her background as a waitress, got quite experienced in her new job and has been working all over the shop. "(In the beginning)," she explained, "I was anxious to find something to do so that I just did whatever they asked me to. (Today), there are so many different steps, doing 'hubs' and gauges, stamping the needles, drilling, then packaging--it's fascinating."

People at Vita Needle Company are pretty much able to set their own hours, and many of them have a key to the facilities. "Bill and I," Rosa continued, "and another gentleman are here at 5:30 in the morning. There isn't a boss here to tell us what to do, but we all seem to know what we have to do. It's wonderful to wake up and have somewhere to go."

How true this is! And there is a lot of camaraderie and concern for each other. Bill alluded to it: "We kind of watch out for each other. We have a little system here--if we don't show up, people are going to call and look after you." Rosa summed it up: "I think working here has been one of the things that keeps me going."

An amazing interview with inspired senior workers! "It's interesting to interact with people of the kind you saw," Larry told us later. "Their standards, work ethics, and everything like that are so much different from what they are with people who join the workplace today. You heard Bill say 'nobody is standing over us' and you don't have to."

However, how do you keep deadlines with customers when you are not always free in your schedules? "That's right," Larry responded, "our speed of working and the way we can handle things are figured into our lead times. People have their problems with ailments and you have to make allowance for that. (But) just because you hire senior citizens, it doesn't mean that you cannot compete in the marketplace. We advertise that 'we are the low-cost producer' and we can beat anybody's price in our niche market. And that's by working with our senior citizens, their work ethics and things like that." A strong and affirmative statement, which speaks to questions of work motivation, productivity, and creativity of older workers!

We talked once more about possible difficulties of having a younger supervisor in charge of this senior workforce. "The pros outweigh the cons," was Larry's opinion. "If you plan your business correctly, you'll come out ahead. As far as the people having a younger person as their boss, I don't think it makes a difference to any of the seniors out there. I cannot think of one of them, at this point in their life, who would want to take (supervisory) responsibility. They would rather be given a job, 'tell me how to do it, leave me alone and I'll ge it done.' I don't think there is that kind of a conflict."

Vita Needle Company is a unique organization that has been widely recognized for its practice of integrating senior citizens into its workforce. Obviously, there are cost considerations--seniors are eligible for Medicare and have no need for company-paid health coverage. But, as owner Fred Hartman once said: "They don't have the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) meetings or the kids in day care." He finds them loyal and responsible. To work is a high priority for them.

Vita Needle Company has been covered in the news media and also by several European TV stations that wanted to show their viewers, Look, this can be done. In that context, Bill told us, "We received a letter from a woman (of the TV team) over there--I forget her age--who had to retire. She said: 'I have to sit here on the sofa and die. (Instead) I would love to be over there and go to work for you people.'"

Which brings back the echo of Rosa's revealing remark; "It's wonderful to wake up and have somewhere to go."