March 31, 2012 | By Katie Johnston
NEEDHAM - For employees at the Vita Needle Co., turning 70 or 80 or even 100 doesn’t mean a retirement party; it means a coffee break with a birthday cake - and then getting back to work.
Nearly half the employees who produce, package, and ship orders at the maker of stainless steel needles and tubing are over 65; the median age is 73.
That is just how the company’s managers want it. Employing older workers became official company policy after a hiring spree of older workers in the late 1980s proved highly successful. It is now firmly embedded in the company’s corporate culture.
“This works,’’ said Frederick Hartman, 59, Vita Needle president and fourth generation owner.
Now many other companies are learning what Hartman and Vita Needle have long known: A white-haired workforce can be hard-working, dependable, experienced - and economical. Nationally, the over-65 workforce is projected to grow 64 percent, to 12 million, by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; by then, 7.4 percent of the workforce will be over age 65 - more than double what it was in 2000.
The notion of employing more older workers is growing in popularity, according to a 2011 study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a business analysis company. It found a majority of corporate executives see the increased longevity of workers more as a business opportunity than a liability.
And companies are learning to make accommodations that assure success. In a 2007 pilot project, for example, auto company BMW equipped older workers in a German plant with magnifying glasses and chairs, and made other small adjustments - and found decreased absenteeism and increased productivity.
At Vita Needle, employing older workers is viewed as a significant cost-saver. Most members of the 49-person workforce are part time, with starting pay a few dollars above minimum wage, with no health insurance, sick pay, or retirement benefits. It works because most of the older workers are covered by Medicare and draw income from Social Security.
Hartman also gives out companywide bonuses at the end of the year, sometimes equal to a few months’ pay.
But employees said the benefits of working at their age go beyond money.
Ann Poulos, a former secretary in her 80s who has been at Vita Needle for more than 30 years, attributed her good health to her five-day-a-week regime, which includes walking up and down stairs to feed the parking meter.