Employer Spotlight: RLA Conservation
It takes a multigenerational team to preserve historic architecture and fine sculptures
En español | Sometimes large sculptures, artifacts and historic architecture need a touch-up. When that time comes, one team that often gets the call to assist in the preservation work is RLA Conservation, one of the companies that has signed AARP's Employer Pledge affirming the value of older workers.
With more than 20 employees split between two studios in Miami and Los Angeles, RLA is one of the larger firms in the field of art conservations, according to Rosa Lowinger, its president and chief conservator. In recent years, her teams have handled projects nationwide, including relocating the massive 1963 mural Extending the Arms of Christ from the main entrance at Houston Methodist Hospital and cleaning soot-covered sculptures damaged by wildfires on the West Coast.
Conservation work requires a demanding mix of physical skills, patience and big-picture vision, Lowinger says. Those are valuable skills that she's found older workers bring to her multigenerational staff. Lowinger recently spoke with AARP about why her firm signed the Employer Pledge. The following excerpts from that conversation have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
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What led you to become interested in AARP's Employer Pledge Program?
Well, interestingly, there are two things. My father was discriminated against because of his age several times, but one time in particular, when he was working for a company in Miami, an optical company that made lenses. He was hired to create a lens laboratory for an optometrist. He was at the time in his late 60s or early 70s, and [the company] determined that they wanted to get rid of him and hire two younger people. He suffered so dramatically from that. It absolutely broke my father in half to have this happen to him. And that experience really shaped me, too.
The second was I hired a woman at a certain point to manage our offices who has since passed away, but she was [an older worker]. When I hired her, her abilities were so superior to anyone I had previously had in that position that I just thought, “You know, this really makes a lot of sense.” You really get something immeasurable from an employee who has experience. More than just their ability, and their skills and the wisdom that comes with experience. As an employer, you're always wondering how much [workers] really understand that you want to do the right thing for them. And every time I have hired someone who is older than 50, they get it, because these are people that have worked in a lot of other places, and they know what it's like to work in a good place.
I'm looking for a collective recognition that [as a company], we are all working toward the same thing, and that we're all working toward the betterment of our staff and our clients. My firm works hard to do well by its staff, and what I feel is that there are many [workers who] don't see that. But every time I've hired someone that is experienced and has had maybe a couple decades of work under their belt, they completely get it.
Art is subjective by nature, with viewpoints that can change from decade to decade. How does that dynamic play out among the multiple generations on your staff?
For the work we do [through RLA], there are many different kinds of skills you need. There's sheer physical skill and stamina. People need to be able to climb a scaffold, walk around on a scaffold, use power tools, and have great eyesight to do painting. And then we need people to be able to manage information and be savvy about technology.
But it's also a field where you have to toggle between a lot of different activities — you need to have vision and a broad understanding of how to put many different things together. And the multigenerational team works exceptionally well.
I'll give you my own example. I've been doing this work since 1980, and I am at the absolute top of my game in terms of decision-making, problem-solving, getting us out of a corner when we get into a corner. When a problem occurs, I have a lot of experience figuring things out, and my staff loves to call me in when they hit a wall. But I also know this: I don't have the agility on a scaffold that I used to have. I don't always have the eyesight that my younger team members have. So they consider me perhaps the most valuable person on the team. But I know that we all are doing things together that are very valuable.
What would you tell other employers in different fields about the benefits of hiring older workers?
I feel that my older workers bring big-picture vision to things. They bring an ability to think outside the box. You can bring an older worker any problem, and usually they've had some experience that will point you in the right direction.
All work is problem-solving. No matter what you're doing. Whether you're an accountant, a lawyer, an art conservator or a graphic designer, you're always trying to solve problems. And older workers have more problem-solving under their belt. They have a level of understanding that if you give patience to a problem, you are certain to find a solution.
Kenneth Terrell covers employment, age discrimination, work and jobs, careers, and the federal government for AARP. He previously worked for the Education Writers Association and U.S. News & World Report, where he reported on government and politics, business, education, science and technology, and lifestyle news.