TOPICS > Economy

Manufacturer Vita Needle Finds Investment in Older Workers Turns a Big Profit

January 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The average age of Vita Needle's workers is 74 years old, and that's no accident. The manufacturing company has intentionally hired seniors -- a decision that has increased profits and benefited older workers who often have a harder time finding a job. Paul Solman reports on their unique model for doing business.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a Massachusetts company that has found the road to profitability lies with an underemployed group of workers.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports on this rare hiring policy. It’s part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: Since losing her husband 16 years ago, retired waitress Rosa Finnegan has been coming to work at Vita Needle in Needham, Mass.

ROSA FINNEGAN, Vita Needle worker: I can still walk up the stairs as long as I have a little support. I don’t want to fall backwards.

PAUL SOLMAN: No surprise that, at 100, Rosa is the oldest worker at this needle and tube manufacturer. The next oldest, Bill Ferson, is just 94.

BILL FERSON, Vita Needle worker: I’m in.

So, I go home, I said to my wife, “I think I got a part-time job.”

“Oh, good,” she said, “get you out of my hair.”

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, the average age of the workers at Vita Needle is 74.

BILL FERSON: I was only going to come for five or six months, something like that. I have been here 24 years. I’m never going to quit working.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, the data on American workers over 55 is that they’re unemployed far longer than younger ones — the anecdata, that age discrimination abounds. But age discrimination here means, the older the better.

FRED HARTMAN, Vita Needle president: Attention to detail is excellent, attention to quality, loyalty.

PAUL SOLMAN: There are a host of reasons, says company president Fred Hartman, for employing the elderly.

FRED HARTMAN: Our turnover, believe it or not, is very low. We probably bury more people than have people leave in a given year.

PAUL SOLMAN: Hartman’s family has owned Vita Needle for 80 years. But the company he took over in the 1980s was struggling.

FRED HARTMAN: At the time, all we could find was people that had been downsized, laid off, that were senior citizens, and we could only afford part-time help at the time. And so that’s who we hired. And then the epiphany and the light bulb went on and said, this is a good arrangement for everybody.

PAUL SOLMAN: Vita Needle says it’s earned record profits 18 of the last 20 years, thanks in large part to its geriatric labor force, most of which works part-time for $10 to $20 an hour.

BILL FERSON: Mr. Hartman’s been very good to me. How many places would keep a man my age, even hire me?

PAUL SOLMAN: How much do you make?

BILL FERSON: Well, I think that’s personal. I will never get rich here. Let me put it that way.

PAUL SOLMAN: Bill Ferson, whose wall art was put up by a former colleague, he says, won’t get rich, but he does have total flex time.

Anthropologist CAITRIN LYNCH:

CAITRIN LYNCH, “Retirement on the Line”: It’s very surprising that a manufacturing facility can be set up in a way that’s very flexible. So you will hear from workers here who say, I can have it all. I can have work during my retirement, but I can also clock out at 2:00 and baby-sit.

PAUL SOLMAN: Lynch herself worked here for a summer while researching a book on Vita Needle, “Retirement on the Line.”

CAITRIN LYNCH: People will acknowledge that this wouldn’t have worked for them at an earlier stage of life, when they had children who they were raising, saving for college, paying off mortgages. It wouldn’t have worked then.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it works now. Employees are also cross-trained, so they can pitch in where needed, packing needles with syringes, for example.

This is like a syringe for a cow or something. I mean, that’s huge.

ROSA FINNEGAN: Right. Yes. Yes. This isn’t huge.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, I sure as hell hope nobody is going to put that in me.

ROSA FINNEGAN: You should see the undertaker needles.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: The undertaker needles? No, I don’t think I want to see them, thank you.

But, at age 100, why not kick back and smell the roses and every other flower in the garden?

ROSA FINNEGAN: Well, I think coming here keeps me going as something to look forward to. And I — everybody greets each other in the morning, and how did you sleep, and tell each other your aches and pains. And that means a lot.

MAN: Someone landed on him going into the end zone.

PAUL SOLMAN: Break time in what’s called the clubhouse, where the guys gather to gab and nosh before it’s back to the grind.

MAN: Well, we have got to go make money for Fred.

MAN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

BILL FERSON: My friends are all in the ground. These are all new friends. I got a place to come, people to talk to. I’m not alone, and keep my upstairs going.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you think that this job really keeps you in mental shape or sharp?

BILL FERSON: Let me put it this way. If it wasn’t for this job, I might be six feet under. A lot of people a lot younger than me are in tough shape, I know. I have seen them. I don’t want to be like that.

WOMAN: Oh!

MAN: New chairs.

WOMAN: New chairs.

WOMAN: I tried it out. They’re going to have to get a different kind of a chair for me.

MAN: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Camaraderie and flexibility are obvious reasons older folks like it here.

WOMAN (singing): They’re writing songs of love, but not for me.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: But another reason is being of use.

Is work at this age, then, redemptive? Yes, says Caitrin Lynch.

CAITRIN LYNCH: It’s through the process of working, through knowing you’re doing something productive that’s contributing to a very successful business, that people feel like there’s still a reason for me to be here, be here in the world, where, in American society, unfortunately, people feel invisible as they get older.

PAUL SOLMAN: And what’s it like for a younger worker? Twenty-nine-year-old A.J. Coffey says he appreciates co-workers his grandparents’ age.

A.J. COFFEY, Vita Needle worker: They always show up for work. You don’t have to worry about, someone called in today, like, kids my age, or younger.

PAUL SOLMAN: The company and its aged artisans have attracted attention near and far. German and Dutch filmmakers made documentaries about it.

WOMAN: Do you have these kind of cards over in Germany?

WOMAN: We do.

WOMAN: Oh, good.

PAUL SOLMAN: Closer to home, Lynch and long-toothed laborers like 83-year-old Joe Reddington give talks on the firm.

CAITRIN LYNCH: Joe…

JOE REDDINGTON, Vita Needle worker: Yes?

CAITRIN LYNCH: … have you ever heard of the word retirement?

JOE REDDINGTON: I think about it when it gets bright in the morning and I have to get up. I think about it. And then I say, ah, no.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: Seventy-six-year-old retired engineer Bob Omara has worked at Vita Needle for 11 years.

BOB OMARA, Vita Needle worker: Retirement isn’t death. It shouldn’t be anyway. You have got all this investment in people’s knowledge. Why throw it away?

PAUL SOLMAN: Some keep working because they don’t have a choice.

Seventy-eight-year-old Howard Ring started here six years ago.

HOWARD RING, Vita Needle worker: I was doing it for the money.

PAUL SOLMAN: Ring was laid off from his job as a mechanical engineer and had struggled to find other work.

HOWARD RING: I felt awkward about leaving the house, because I didn’t have a job. I was able to work, looking to work, and there was nobody to hire me. So, it was — I felt sort of ashamed.

PAUL SOLMAN: Most of Vita Needle’s press has been positive, though some wonder if the company hires the elderly as a costly act of kindness.

Nonsense, says Fred Hartman.

FRED HARTMAN: We get it back in spades as far as the company is concerned with the loyalty, the effort that’s put forward.

Perhaps our folks aren’t as fast as some of the younger, but we have more than enough people so that we can, ironically enough, be one of the fastest in our industry in responding to our customers’ requirements.

PAUL SOLMAN: An opposite critique, that because the older workers receive Social Security and Medicare, the company is exploiting cheap labor, paying low wages while government picks up the tab for benefits.

FRED HARTMAN: That’s not true at all. We have young people that are 21 years old that work here. We pay competitive wages for our market, and then on top of that have an annual profit-sharing where, if the company wins, everybody wins.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you’re offended by the question?

FRED HARTMAN: I am. We don’t pay full-time benefits to people that are part-time. Our work force, by and large, is part-time, so we have more than enough help to cover our daily needs.

PAUL SOLMAN: But don’t the workers sometimes feel exploited? We put the question to Rosa Finnegan.

ROSA FINNEGAN: My goodness, there isn’t — you don’t see anyone telling me, get going here. Hurry up. You’re not doing enough. You know, no one ever says that to you here. You work at your own pace. I think this is the most wonderful place on Earth. That’s the truth.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: Come on. I mean, there’s got to be some places better than this.

ROSA FINNEGAN: Maybe they have better restrooms, that’s about it.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, restrooms aside, this place certainly has its virtues.

ROSA FINNEGAN: These are very sharp.

PAUL SOLMAN: But as more and more Americans approach Finnegan’s age, or hope to at any rate, could a quirky firm like Vita Needle actually serve as a model for others?

CAITRIN LYNCH: I haven’t found another manufacturing facility that — with a median age of 74, but it is possible that there could be, you know, little parts of this lesson that help us to think in a new way about, you know, those 75-year-olds, they’re not useless.

Let’s think about how to bring them in for the benefit of our company and for them.

PAUL SOLMAN: And why not, asks Howard Ring?

HOWARD RING: Look, the Supreme Court has got people over 80 in it, and we don’t think much about that. So why can’t we do this with other people?

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, nobody on the Supreme Court has made it Rosa Finnegan’s age, not yet. But if they did, would you have a problem with it?

And who wouldn’t want meaningful work in their 101st year of life, even if there weren’t an elevator?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wonder if they have any openings?

Paul has an extended conversation with 100-year-old Rosa Finnegan. You can watch that on our website.