Chances are, some of your cleaning workers are getting close to retirement age. In the next five to 10 years, you’ll likely have an even bigger group of workers who qualify for retirement.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 25 percent of the working population (the so-called “baby boomers”) will reach retirement age by 2010, resulting in a worker shortage of 10 million.

Don’t panic. You probably won’t lose all of your most experienced workers as soon as they reach retirement age. A recent survey from Merrill Lynch investment firm shows that more than three-fourths of baby boomers — 76 percent — plan to keep working well past the age of 65.

Some of your colleagues are already reporting that some of their employees are choosing to work rather than retire.

“Out of 186 [custodial] employees, 63 are eligible for retirement — that’s 34 percent,” says Ron Bailey, associate director of custodial services for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Of the number of people who are eligible for retirement, I expect maybe 10 retirements in the next year or so.”

Why are retirement-eligible employees staying on? Some simply enjoy working; others need health benefits and an income.

“One of my workers who is 65 says she’s here because without our health insurance, she can’t afford to live,” Bailey says, adding that the oldest worker on his staff — an 83-year-old — retired years ago but recently returned to the job.

“The way Social Security is right now, more and more people are coming back into the work force,” says Ron Goerne, CEO of Service Resource, Bloomington, Ill. “They’re coming from all different types of work because [cleaning is] an easy-entry job.”

While the cleaning profession may be easy to pass into, the work can be difficult for a person of any age, not to mention someone older than 65.

“There’s a perception that everybody can be a janitor because it’s a no-brainer job,” says John Walker, owner of ManageMen consulting firm. “But the job includes a lot of lifting, pushing, bending, stooping, and carrying trash containing food and paper, which is heavy. It’s not true that anybody can do it.”

As a manager, it is up to you to pay special attention to training and safety, and fitting workers with jobs that are best for them — and your cleaning operation.

Safety concerns increase with age
In general, you may worry about worker safety. Cleaning workers are the fifth most injured workers in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. An injured worker can cost cleaning departments in lost productivity, worker compensation claims and lawsuits.

When cleaning employees work past retirement age, safety concerns increase, according to some managers.

“I am not going to lie — I worry a lot about injuries and worker compensation,” says John Vogelsang, facilities services director, Illinois Central College, Peoria, Ill. “Think about it: How much does the average bucket of water weigh? How much does the average bag of trash weigh? Factor in the age of the worker and the number of times per day they [lift buckets and bags] and the fact that they have arthritis ...”

To protect workers from potential injury, train staff at least annually on safe cleaning techniques. Custodians at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are trained on safe ways of lifting, pushing and pulling. Wearing back braces and slip-resistant shoe coverings is mandatory, Bailey says.

Another approach used to protect workers from injury: fitting people with jobs that work best for them. “You have to look for the best position within the organization for the person, based on his or her abilities,” Goerne says.

For example, not every worker can wear a backpack vacuum. “Sometimes [the backpack] doesn’t fit or is too heavy,” Goerne says. “They might be a good restroom cleaner instead. You want to put the worker in a position that is best for [him or her], and create a good impression of the job right away. Bad impressions lead to turnover real quick.”

One way to fit the job to the worker is to look for tools and equipment that make cleaning tasks easier and more efficient.

“There is a big interest in ergonomic tools — it is partly due to people wanting to accommodate the aging work force,” Walker says. “Manufacturers are realizing there’s marketing for automation and robotics. You may be able to extend people’s careers in the cleaning industry with those tools and by reducing the weight of mopping tools or replacing them with autoscrubbers.”

Another way you can fit workers with the job that is best for them: Consider whether or not a potential worker has any current injuries, ailments or other safety requirements during the interview and hiring process. Some organizations, such as Mercy Medical Center, in Mason City, Iowa, put job applicants through a physical assessment test.

The test has slowed Mercy’s selection process and limited its resource pool, says Debbie Patterson, building services manager. “Many do not meet the physical criteria,” she says.

Using a careful employee selection process means that finding the right person to fill a position can take up to three months, says Steve Flug, building manager, Farm Bureau Financial Services, West Des Moines, Iowa. “However, we’re patient,” he says, adding that finding the right employee makes the search worthwhile.

Although housekeeping managers with older workers on staff worry about employee safety and productivity, the pros “way outweigh the cons,” says Bailey, reflecting the sentiments of many other managers. “[Older workers] are like the heart of the department.”

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the oldest staff members have been working there for decades and know buildings better than anyone on campus, Bailey says.

Long-term workers also tend to require less supervision, says Tom Parrish, custodial manager, Washington State University. “They don’t call in sick very often, they’re mature, they know their responsibilities and they do a good job,” he adds.

People who have retired from other careers also bring wisdom, knowledge and experience to the job, even though they don’t have a cleaning background.

“Some of them have a good business background,” Goerne says. “You can use them in trainings because they might have done similar management jobs for different companies. They can bring valuable experience to cleaning departments.”

Coping with the loss of workers
Although some workers might stick around longer, eventually, you will lose some employees to retirement or to other jobs. When longtime workers do decide to retire or leave, you often lose valuable employees.

Sometimes Bailey has to replace employees with people who don’t know the university or the cleaning industry, which is why hiring to replace retirees is not a task managers look forward to.

“I am concerned about replacing senior staff members,” says Flug. “We already have a difficult time filling positions. Any time any staff has been with you a while and retires, it is hard to fill that void that is left.”

For Washington State’s Parrish, filling that void starts well before an employee retires. He takes notes on each worker’s area and job responsibilities “so we can pass it on to the next person,” he says.

“If this is documented for all employees, it helps us better fill in when someone is on vacation, too. We try to make the transition invisible.”

One thing to keep in mind: When employees retire, they don’t always leave for good. So, you can benefit from maintaining good relationships with once-valuable workers.

“When people retire, ask them to remain ‘on call,’” Goerne says. “They can fill in for vacations. You could also keep them on staff for specialist jobs like marble cleaning, or have them come in to help with quality assurance on a part-time basis. You never want to close the door with a good employee.”