Late Departure


June 2013

Late Departure

NSPE members share why they are a part of an increasing trend of older workers delaying retirement.


Late Departure Cover StoryAmerican workers are increasingly delaying retirement. Forty-eight percent of baby boomer generation workers expect that they will continue working past the age of 65, while 13% believe they will continue working into their 70s, according to a Deloitte human capital trends report.

Why are these workers sticking around longer? One reason is that U.S. citizens are healthier and living longer than previous generations and simply want to continue working. For others, financial losses from the Great Recession and the slow economic recovery have forced them to work longer to earn more income. And in other cases, workers are delaying retirement due to uncertainty about a shift in government policy on age requirements and levels of benefits for Medicare and Social Security programs. Companies are also in need of highly skilled workers and this demand provides opportunities for older workers with these skills to extend their careers.

Bob Pence, P.E., president and CEO of the Fort Worth, Texas-based Freese and Nichols, believes that the engineering profession provides good incentives for people to extend their careers beyond retirement age. "If you want to get rich, the engineering profession isn't the one you pick," says the 63-year-old. "If you want to have a great career and have enough money to comfortably retire, it is a great profession."


Bob Pence, P.E.

Bob Pence, P.E.

Another factor in delaying retirement is that engineers enjoy their work, Pence says. "Now this may be hard for nonengineers to understand," he says. "We have had people who had careers through management and they came back just to do the engineering work."


Where do engineers fit into this employment trend? An increasing percentage of individuals in their 60s with science and engineering degrees were still in the workforce between 1993 and 2008, according to most recent data from the National Science Foundation. Fifty-nine percent of individuals between the ages of 60 and 64 were employed in 1993, while 66% were employed in 2006. Science and engineering degree holders between the ages 65 and 69 increased from 32% in 1993 to 44% 2006. Participation in the labor force by individuals in their early 70s has also slightly increased, while it remains unchanged for workers in their 50s.

David Janover, P.E., F.NSPE, is only in his 40s, but he is planning to maintain his engineering career for the long haul—possibly into his early 70s. As a local government employee, he realizes that his career will likely not end in the public sector because of changing budgets and staffing needs. "I have a lot of exposure to private firms through my government work and having a engineering license will afford me more opportunities to transition into that sector of practice or become a consultant," says the town engineer for the Town of Islip, New York.

Staying in the Game
Firms have not yet bought into increasing their number of staff to pre-2008 levels, however, they are open to more part-time positions, says Jeremy Clarke, director of executive search consulting for ZweigWhite. "These firms are hiring older aged employees because their openings match the needs of these employees," says Clarke. "Particularly with large infrastructure projects, engineers can stay in the game by becoming independent consultants on these projects."

Will younger engineers be left out in the cold because of the increasing number of older professionals staying in the labor force? No, says Clarke. In a recovering economy, firms will shift more senior-level responsibilities to engineers with four to five years of experience to save on costs associated with salaries. "If engineers can get licensed early, they really put themselves in a great position to get hired by a firm," Clarke advises.

In her experience as a career coach, Elizabeth Lions has learned that engineers and professionals in analytical fields are often reluctant to retire. "They like to go into work and solve problems," says the author based in Texas. "They also enjoy learning and challenging themselves."

There's plenty of work on the horizon for engineers, says Lions, but they have to keep their skills sharp. Employers want to hire older professionals because they are going to work hard and show up on time. "You still have a lot of baby boomer generation engineers who are introverts, but the trend has shifted and they are outperforming Gen X and Y workers," she says.

Lions advises professional engineers to be fearless as they plan how to extend their careers into the traditional retirement years. "It's great to plan and prepare for the future, but you can't be afraid," she says. "Engineers are problem solvers and will figure out solutions."

Making a Contribution
Pence will step down as president of Freese and Nichols when he reaches 66, but he plans to continue working in some capacity until he's 70. "The good thing about consulting engineering is that you can stick around longer," he says. "We are not a company that says once you get to retirement age, 'Here's your watch, now get out of here.'"

If you visit the Freese and Nichols headquarters, it's not unusual to see some of the company's former leaders around the office. Jim Nichols, 89, still attends leadership meetings, makes calls to clients, and shares his wisdom, says Pence. He is not alone. Bob Nichols, 86, and Lee Freese, 77, still work in a part-time capacity. "They are not here because of a control issue. They are still here because they love the company," he says. "When they turned over the reins, they turned them over."

It's not unusual for younger staff members to express interest in retiring early, says Peggy Freeby, human resources director for Freese and Nichols. "Some people say that they are planning to retire at 55 and that's great to say when you're 35," she says. "But they get to that age and they aren't ready."

Currently, there are a dozen engineers, including nine PEs, who are 65 years or older on staff at Freese and Nichols. These engineers previously served in management positions, but they stepped down to focus on doing technical work in a part-time capacity as well as coaching and mentoring younger staff members. "Our oldest workers are encouraged to give that management opportunity to others as they stay on to do technical work and provide that knowledge transfer," she says. "It's important to have this as a company model."

Strong company growth is the primary reason Freese and Nichols can continue to keep some employees past retirement age and help them financially prepare when they are ready to exit the company. "The company has grown even through the recession, and we have created opportunities for staff," he says. "If you have a 20- to 30-person firm, this could be a real issue."

Robert Simms, P.E., enjoys exploring the world. At 73, he has traveled to every continent except Antarctica—and he is working on making that happen. Simms is financially comfortable and could spend his golden years traveling around the world. He chooses, however, to keep his career going as president of Land Design Consultants Inc. in Pasadena, California. "I could retire if I wanted to, but I'm having too much fun," says the civil engineer and member of the California Society of Professional Engineers' board of directors. 

Simms jokes that if he had to do it all over again, he'd want to be Bill Gates. Honestly, he says, there isn't anything he would change about his engineering career path. "I've always wanted to have my own company. That was my goal and I've accomplished that," he says. "We all have our accomplishments, but as an engineer, I can look at [my work] and say, 'Yes, I did that.'"

With nearly 50 years of expertise, Simms doesn't have any foreseeable plans of stepping down as head of the firm he established in 1992, which specializes in land planning, environmental services, civil engineering, and land surveying. When that day does come, he is satisfied that he has secured the company's future. "We've got very good project managers and my partner has lots of energy and is 20 years my junior," he says. "The company will keep going without me."


Everett Cowan, P.E.

Everett Cowan, P.E.

When Everett Cowan, P.E., stepped down as president and CEO of Gresham & Smith in 2008 at 62, he continued to serve in a transitional role at the Nashville, Tennessee, firm. However, he felt that he had enough good years left to continue being productive and contribute his leadership skills and expertise. "As you get closer to retirement age, you realize how much time you spend engaged in your profession. I realized that there weren't that many places I wanted to go and I enjoy the business," he says. "If I'm in good health, I plan on working well into my 70s."


In 2011, Cowan started the next phase of his career by launching AE Guidance LLC, where he uses his expertise to help small and mid-sized firms grow and deal with management issues. He admits that starting his own firm was pretty challenging. Yet, running a small consulting firm instead of serving as an executive for a large firm provides flexibility and a good work-life balance. "I've got the ideal situation," he says. "It is about reducing your schedule of business demands so you've got enough time to still enjoy your family, travel, or play golf, while still keeping enough of a business and professional presence to keep you challenged."

Cowan believes that the notion of retiring in your 60s is a thing of the past. "I think many employers are starting to believe that retirement at 65 years old is outdated," he says. "It's where we are headed and it's the right thing."