As baby boomers head for the exits, businesses worry about the workforce

The four employees at Digi-Key say they are near or past retirement age.
From left to right, Evadell Tangquist, Zeann Linder, Karen Konickson and Alice Wassink at the Digi-Key headquarters in Thief River Falls, Minn. The four say they are near or past retirement age, but plan to keep working, mostly because they like the work, the company and their coworkers.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Alice Wassink works full time at Digi-Key in Thief River Falls, checking badges at the entrance and packaging parts for shipment.

"I am 81, and I still work full time," she said. "I love every minute of it."

Wassink has been with the company 27 years, and it has become more than a workplace for her. She says her coworkers look out for her, bring her flowers and bring her food.

"I love the company. I am way past retirement age. This is my second home," she said.

That's a good thing for Digi-Key, which is thriving and growing, and has a need for dedicated, skilled workers.

Minnesota's workforce is aging. There's no way around it — the baby-boom generation is a big group, and it will be hitting retirement age through the next decade or so. The effects will be widespread, but rural Minnesota, which trends older than the metro area, will be hit hardest. For companies looking to grow or just maintain, it means being innovative in recruitment and in finding ways to hold onto older workers.

Digi-Key has grown significantly in the past 25 years. In 1994, the company had around 390 employees. Today, it has more than 3,500. The company, which ships electronic components worldwide, keeps on growing.

A 1-million-square-foot expansion of the facility is underway. And Mark Schmidtke, the community relations and events manager at Digi-Key, said the company has plans to add employees.

The 1-million-square-foot expansion at Digi-Key is underway.
The 1-million-square-foot expansion at Digi-Key in Thief River Falls, Minn., is underway. The company is planning to hire 1,000 more workers in the city over the next 10 years.
Peter Cox | MPR News

"With our expansion, one of the things that was set up is over the 10 years we will have 1,000 new jobs," he said.

That would total 4,500 employees, or more than half the population of Thief River Falls, which has around 8,800 residents. And the company will add those 1,000 new jobs during a decade when the over-65 population of Pennington County will rise from around 18 percent to an estimated 27 percent.

With all that on the table, Digi-Key has found innovative and straightforward ways to recruit. Starting salaries are higher than most in the region. The company offers good health insurance at a low price, as well as an onsite medical office. The company has buses that run from Crookston, Minn., and Grand Forks, N.D. It offers flexible schedules and part-time work. And it offers plenty of training to help workers gain new skills to keep on working.

"The battle for workers, so to speak, is pretty tight," said Shane Zutz, vice president of human resources at Digi-Key. "And so I think with companies that are forward-thinking and want to be transformational are really looking at how do they differentiate themselves and how do they create environments that people want to be a part of."

Zutz said the company is trying to find ways to be attractive to people at all stages of their lives.

"One of the things that we're changing here, just in the next month or so, is that we've really changed our time-off policy, and it's markedly different than it was before," he said. "As people move on in their career, they want that flexibility. Whether they have kids going to college that they want to visit more, they want to travel more, they have grandkids that they want to help, or they have an ailing parent that they need to take care of, so we have to continue to find ways to provide flexibility."

Digi-Key international headquarters in Thief River Falls
The sign outside of the Digi-Key international headquarters in Thief River Falls, Minn. The company, which has more than 3,500 employees in Thief River Falls, plans to add 1,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Digi-Key has plenty of younger workers, and has been able to recruit and retain those workers. But with nearly 32 percent of Digi-Key employees 50 years old or older, many workers will hit retirement age over the next decade.

"Rural parts of the state are in a worsened position, in terms of being able to accommodate that aging workforce and continue to fill job openings as they occur, than areas like the Twin Cities that have a younger age profile," said Steve Hine, research director for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

He said when workers hit retirement age, a certain number will jump at the chance to relax and have time for other pursuits, "but many will also be quite happy to stay in a position if perhaps the work conditions, their responsibilities, their hours, their days per week, whatever it takes to make it advantageous for an individual to perhaps postpone retirement for a year or two — that will help a lot of companies over this hump."

While there are no programs specifically to attract older workers, the company has hired many looking to start second careers later in life.

Karen Konickson, who works in talent acquisition for the company, has seen that firsthand.

She's been with the company for 25 years and says she's near retirement age, but has no plans to leave the company anytime soon.

"We have a lot of people that have retired. They were not ready to retire, it was not for them," she said. "They'll come to Digi-Key and find a place. They stay with us a long time."

And there are those longtime employees, like Wassink, the 81-year old who checks in workers at Digi-Key. She said she has no plans to stop working at the moment.

"I wouldn't know what to do if I had to sit at home," she said.

Correction (June 3, 2019): In an earlier version of this story, Zeann Linder's name was misspelled in a photo caption.