What do you say if your business-owner client decides that retaining boomer employees will help increase the value of the business he wants to pass on to his heirs?

Increasing wages and salaries may be one obvious solution, but experts say a less expensive strategy may be to focus on improving, or simply maintaining, the quality of group medical insurance and other health benefits, such as dental insurance and vision care insurance, to help a business stand out at a time when other employers are skimping on benefits.

For decades, many private employers have done all that they could to drive older workers away without facing penalties for blatant age discrimination.

Today, the tide may be starting to turn.

Boomers make up more than 40% of the U.S. work force, and years of hiring freezes have weakened the flow of bright young newcomers in many fields.

Because of the aging of the boomers, the number of U.S. workers in the 35-44 age category probably will be 10% lower in 2010 than it was in 2000, while the number of workers in the 45-54 age group will grow 21%, and the number in the 55-64 age group will grow 52%, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Workers over age 60–members of the Silent Generation–are less likely to have college degrees than younger workers, but boomers are about as likely to have college degrees as younger workers, and many have other attributes–such as a proven ability to close sales–that may make them hot commodities even in a cool economy.

For now, “some companies are facing a skill shortage,” says Lorrie Foster, director of research working groups at the Conference Board, New York, a management think tank that recently published a study on the mature worker. “But it depends on the company,” she says. “The situation varies industry by industry, case by case.”

In the future, interest in retaining boomers’ skills and contacts is likely to grow, experts predict.

At Lincoln National Corp., Philadelphia, for example, managers have discovered that many clients feel more comfortable discussing financial issues with mature advisors. Lincoln has responded by setting up a task force to develop ideas for recruiting and retaining older workers.

One indicator of employer interest in the aging of the work force is the performance of the Conference Board’s mature worker. The group is getting many calls about the study and is already planning to develop another report about the work force, according to Foster.

Keeping qualified boomers in hot fields may not necessarily be so much easier for the employer than dealing with gluts of workers in times of slumps: 19% of U.S. workers ages 45 and older say they are likely to look for new jobs in the coming year, according to a survey commissioned by AARP, Washington.

A good benefits package can be critical to efforts to retain boomer employees, because employers can use their access to rich, guaranteed-issue products, such as rich major medical insurance packages and top-quality long-term disability insurance policies that may be available to highly skilled boomers who strike out on their own as self-employed consultants.

Tinkering with retirement plans to serve the needs of aging boomers is a complicated legal issue that is getting some attention from Congress.

Meanwhile, here is a list of strategies that experts say can make health and ancillary benefits packages more appealing to aging boomers:

==Ask current boomer employees what benefits and benefit features that they value. Every employee population is different. What works for one company might not work as well at another company.

==Offer real health insurance. Many big employers are trying to appeal to low-paid part-time workers and hourly workers with limited-benefit medical plans. Those policies are better than nothing for young, relatively healthy workers, but the kinds of skilled, educated boomer workers that employers will be struggling to retain need comprehensive coverage, experts say.

==Maintain the richest possible dental plan. For a boomer with aging teeth, putting in a single crown could blow through the entire $1,000 annual maximum of a typical plan. Boomers may strongly prefer to have a higher maximum, even if that means they have to pay the entire cost of the coverage themselves.

==Remember vision care. Boomers will be more likely to need glasses or contact lenses as they age, and getting regular eye exams may help boomers catch health problems such as diabetes.

==Consider adding health savings accounts or health reimbursement arrangements. Everybody knows that HSAs and HRAs can give healthy employees a financial incentive to stay away from doctors. What benefits advisors sometimes forget is that personal health accounts also can give boomers who do have health problems more control over spending on everyday medical expenses.

==Add or expand long term care insurance benefits and caregiver support services. Many aging boomer workers have frail parents who are in their 80s or 90s. For those workers, help with caring for parents may determine whether those workers can stay in the work force.

==Revamp sick-leave reporting. The Conference Board study authors note that Lincoln National replaced its old allocation of vacation days, holiday days and sick time with a “paid time off” bank.

Workers with PTO banks “don’t have to declare the reason for the day off,” Foster says.

Because a PTO system can increase workers’ level of privacy, it may appeal to boomers who need time off for medical reasons or to care for grandchildren or aging parents.

Future Tense

Government economists think that demand for workers may outstrip supply in many fields when the boomers retire. Here is a look at government civilian labor force projections.

How Many Workers Will There Be In Each Age Group?

(in millions)

2000

2010

Projected Change, 2000-2010

2020

Projected Change, 2000-2020

2030

Projected Change, 2000-2030

Age Group

16 to 24

22.7

26.1

15%

25.7

13%

27.5

21%

25 to 34

31.7

34.2

8%

37.9

20%

37.8

19%

35 to 44

37.8

34.0

-10%

35.3

-7%

39.0

3%

45 to 54

30.5

36.8

21%

32.4

6%

33.6

10%

55 to 64

14.0

21.2

52%

25.2

80%

22.0

58%

65 and older

4.2

5.4

30%

8.2

96%

10.1

140%

Total population, 16 and over

140.9

157.7

12%

164.7

17%

170.1

21%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Monthly Labor Review, May 2002