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by AARP Outreach & Service, February 16, 2009
As a charitable association, the YMCA of Greater Rochester, N.Y., offers thousands of programs each year to people of all ages. Its programs help build healthy and safe communities. Its 2,700 employees work in 15 different locations throughout Greater Rochester, N.Y.
Most YMCA facilities are open seven days a week for up to 18 hours or more each day. This started to make it difficult for the Y of Greater Rochester to find qualified employees who were able to work non-traditional hours or who could manage or staff community programs. And since the organization's members were getting older, the composition of the staff at the Y no longer reflected the people it served.
Business Challenge: Target Employees Who Reflect Diverse Membership
Considering its hours, 5 a.m. until 10 p.m., the YMCA of Greater Rochester sometimes had trouble filling positions at each of its 15 different facilities. For example, at one location, there was an aquatics class offered from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. three times a week, and at another, the welcome desk had to be staffed nearly 17 hours a day.
"Our traditional target population was moms who wanted to reenter the workforce, who had older children they could leave [on their own] early in the morning, or who could come into work for a couple of hours while they were in school," said Fernan Cepero, the vice president of human resources at the YMCA. He explained that college students weren't always available year-round, because they were attending classes. Neither were high school students, whose work hours were also restricted by school and child-labor laws.
In 2005, a unique opportunity presented itself. A local managed-health care plan, Preferred Care, invited community organizations and local fitness centers to help introduce Silver Sneakers®, a health and fitness program for people age 50+. The insurer would pay the annual membership fee of each person who participated. At the time, annual memberships at the YMCA were more than $500.
Initially, many organizations were reluctant to offer the new program, fearing everything from injuries to lawsuits, and several declined the invitation. But the YMCA readily embraced the program and was soon surprised by the high turnout.
"We didn't expect to get the response we received," said Cepero. The first year of the program, nearly 5,300 older people signed up. Today, almost 12,000 are Silver Sneakers® members. From a membership standpoint, he said, that is "phenomenal."
Although the program addressed one challenge—encouraging older individuals to stay in shape—it created another. One of the YMCA's philosophies is to employ a workforce that represents the demographics of its membership base. Because of the sudden growth among age-50+ members, the Y's staffing profile was out of balance.
"We didn't have representation of senior employees matching the new growth we had in membership," he said, explaining that in 2002, roughly 10 percent of the Y's workforce (or 150 of 1,500 employees) were age 50+. Likewise, only 2 percent of its 42,500 members were age 50+. But after Silver Sneakers® was introduced and several new branches opened, membership swelled to 84,500. Twelve percent of those members were age 50+.
Business Solution: Recruit Older Members as Employees
Among the first tasks on the YMCA checklist was revamping its marketing collateral. While its materials didn't deliberately leave out images of older people, the appeal was definitely aimed at a much younger workforce, explained Cepero.
"It sounds simple, but it had an extreme impact on [older] applicants," he said. After the marketing makeover, he reported, "That was one of the first comments they made: 'When we look at your brochure, we see there are people like us in your workforce. This is a place where I would want to come to work.'"
The association then joined in an effort with Lifespan, an organization that offers information, services, and job-search assistance to older adults in the local community. Cepero related that Lifespan then promoted YMCA positions to its clients who were interested in returning to work.
But the recruiting tactic that may have had the biggest impact was tapping the Y’s membership ranks to increase its older workforce. Cepero said he got the idea from a Starbucks recruiting campaign in which employees asked customers if they wanted job applications with their coffee.
Cepero asked employees in the member services department to start having conversations with new members, particularly those who participated in Silver Sneakers®. Employees would ask questions such as, "Would you like to work here in addition to working out?" He said that many older people were excited by the opportunities, filled out applications, and then entered the YMCA’s talent pipeline.
At the same time, the existing staff at the Y began building rapport with new members who were 50+. The hook of the conversation was asking about new members' interests in working or even in volunteering at the YMCA, added Margaret Thomsen, the association’s corporate HR manager.
"We talk to members to understand what their needs are, which has translated to finding the right work niche for them," she said. "You cannot get that from putting an ad in the paper and hoping for the best or a [good] match."
Other locations applied similar grassroots efforts. Back in 2001, the YMCA child-care center at Lewis Street was trying to recruit people to staff its pre-school and school-age programs and its referral service. "We really looked at the community we serve and saw a rich environment of individuals over the age of 50 who had lots of knowledge," recalled James Smith, the center’s director. "We wanted to use their strengths and skills sets."
To capitalize on the talent of older community members, the staff asked a nearby church to notify its congregation of the center's job opportunities. Employees also walked door to door, hanging about 250 job flyers on residents' front doors. Smith said that many older people responded, because they wanted to be reengaged in their community.
But sometimes the job perks attract candidates. All YMCA employees—even part-timers—receive free memberships. Those run approximately $43 a month, said Steve MacAller, executive director at the YMCA’s Chester F. Carlson Metro Center Branch in downtown Rochester.
"Free membership is a big hook," he said.
However, traditional avenues are still used. Job opportunities are posted on the local YMCA’s Web site, and there is a Power Point display in the lobby. MacAller said the Y tries to approach people from all sides with information about current job vacancies.
Another important target is volunteers. The YMCA has plenty. About 10 years ago, the Northwest YMCA branch formed an ambassador subcommittee. It is a group of roughly 60 active retirees who work with the branch’s board of directors on special events. Every several months, to keep the committee members happy and engaged, the branch coordinates special bus trips for them to nearby U.S. and Canadian cities. By encouraging each person to bring someone, explained Deb Duffy, the associate executive director at the branch, the Y has the chance to recruit the friends as volunteers. Each year, some lucky volunteers are recruited to become part-time staff.
"They make the best employees because they understand our culture," said Duffy. "[Conversations] naturally evolve into, 'Ya know, we need more help at the front desk….'"
Outcomes: Loyal Employees, Strong Ties With Members
The YMCA’s recruiting efforts have proved successful in numerous ways: Cepero reported that the organization’s overall employee-turnover rate (now 15 percent) is lower than the national average for associations, which is 19 percent. With part-timers, the difference is even more dramatic: There is a 30 percent turnover rate, compared to the national average of 78 percent.
Older workers seem to stay on the job longer. At the Lewis Street Center, which has 22 employees, only 20 percent were age 50+ in 2001. Now, older people make up 30 percent of the center’s labor force, said Smith. Of the 30 percent, 70 percent have worked at the center for the past seven years.
Cepero said that many 50+ employees eagerly work hard-to-fill shifts, such as those from late morning to early afternoon. Without them, he said, filling those time slots with other segments of the labor force would be much more challenging.
Older workers also fill all types of positions, ranging from the member-services desk, where they greet people, scan membership cards, and provide information, to lifeguarding. The 70+-year-old lifeguards at the Y, Cepero reported, are among the best the association has employed.
Besides filling jobs and strengthening its membership connection, the recruiting strategy also produced another benefit, something the organizations never considered.
"We're creating a culture of sharing across generations," said Cepero, adding that today, 25 percent, or 725 of its 2,900 employees, are age 50 or older. "There's a very high level of respect, interaction, teamwork, and camaraderie. All generations are actually learning from each other and working well together in our work environment."
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