NEEDHAM - For employees at the Vita Needle Co., turning 70 or 80 or even 100 doesn’t mean a retirement party; it means a coffee break with a birthday cake - and then getting back to work.
Nearly half the employees who produce, package, and ship orders at the maker of stainless steel needles and tubing are over 65; the median age is 73.
That is just how the company’s managers want it. Employing older workers became official company policy after a hiring spree of older workers in the late 1980s proved highly successful. It is now firmly embedded in the company’s corporate culture.
“This works,’’ said Frederick Hartman, 59, Vita Needle president and fourth generation owner.
Now many other companies are learning what Hartman and Vita Needle have long known: A white-haired workforce can be hard-working, dependable, experienced - and economical. Nationally, the over-65 workforce is projected to grow 64 percent, to 12 million, by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; by then, 7.4 percent of the workforce will be over age 65 - more than double what it was in 2000.
The notion of employing more older workers is growing in popularity, according to a 2011 study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a business analysis company. It found a majority of corporate executives see the increased longevity of workers more as a business opportunity than a liability.
And companies are learning to make accommodations that assure success. In a 2007 pilot project, for example, auto company BMW equipped older workers in a German plant with magnifying glasses and chairs, and made other small adjustments - and found decreased absenteeism and increased productivity.
At Vita Needle, employing older workers is viewed as a significant cost-saver. Most members of the 49-person workforce are part time, with starting pay a few dollars above minimum wage, with no health insurance, sick pay, or retirement benefits. It works because most of the older workers are covered by Medicare and draw income from Social Security.
Hartman also gives out companywide bonuses at the end of the year, sometimes equal to a few months’ pay.
But employees said the benefits of working at their age go beyond money.
Ann Poulos, a former secretary in her 80s who has been at Vita Needle for more than 30 years, attributed her good health to her five-day-a-week regime, which includes walking up and down stairs to feed the parking meter.
“I was over at the emergency room’’ - to treat a scratch - “and the woman said she was amazed that I could move around easily and that I wasn’t senile,’’ Poulos said at her workstation, where she was placing needles inside tubes, her hands gnarled with arthritis. “I think when we hit this age everybody immediately assumes we’re senile.’’
Vita Needle is not a high-tech place. The company, founded during the Great Depression, is housed in an old theater in Needham’s retail district. The main workroom is filled with long work tables cluttered with boxes, machines, and needles of all sorts. There is no air conditioning, and in the summer temperatures can reach 90 degrees. On one side of the room, the employees - former engineers, machinists, executives, and teachers - sort and package products; on the other, they operate manual lathes and drills.
Behind a coat rack an old ticket booth serves as a supply closet; the dance hall stage is used for storage. The oldest employee is a former waitress named Rosa Finnegan, who turned 100 this year and spends her days stamping the company logo and other information on hypodermic needles.
Older workers have been part of Vita Needle’s makeup since it was founded in 1932 by Hartman’s great-grandfather, then 69, who continued to work until three days before his death at age 97; a nephew worked into his 80s. Vita Needle originally sold hypodermic needles to the military, but when demand plummeted during the AIDS crisis, the company diversified into tubing and fabricating parts for lab instruments, firefighter equipment, and other products.
Over the past two decades, Vita Needle has posted record sales in every year except two, according to Hartman. Last year sales topped $10 million.
The pace of work at Vita Needle also makes it easy to have so many older employees. Customers typically place small- to medium-sized orders - including one client who has been known to pay in doughnuts - and the ebb and flow of work is ideal for part-time positions. Workers set their own schedules - whether it is coming in late after attending a tai chi class or taking two months off in the winter to go to Florida.
Many jobs are not highly specialized, and workers are crosstrained to do other small, repetitive tasks, from counting tubes to grinding needles. That way, if someone cannot come in, another worker can easily fill in. The machines are simple enough that workers do not need extensive training.
Hartman, who calls himself a “frugal Yankee,’’ acknowledged this arrangement might not work at companies with more sophisticated machinery or more pressing production demands.
Employing older workers does sometimes have drawbacks. They forget things, Hartman said, and do not like change. Some have been known to fall asleep on the job.
“You may not necessarily be reaching peak efficiency with this workforce in terms of output, but what we do get is very good quality,’’ added Hartman’s son, Frederick Hartman II, 29, director of marketing and engineering.
If someone does not show up for work and does not answer the phone, operations manager Michael LaRosa drives to the worker’s home to check in.
Vita Needle has become a vital lifeline to its older employees, some of whom found they could not stand the slow pace of retirement, and others who could not afford to retire at all.
Howard Ring, 77, a former mechanical engineer, saw his nest egg smashed when the stock market plunged a decade ago. He has been at Vita Needle for six years, running machines that bend, cut, and solder stainless steel tubing for needles.
“There’s just enough money to make it through the month,’’ he said. “I’ll probably be working at least another five years or so, maybe longer.’’
Mary Brassard lasted all of three weeks in retirement. The former bookkeeper, 86, said she found it too boring. “It’s no fun staying home,’’ said Brassard, sitting at a long table taping rows of needles together, wearing red pants and a red scarf.
Working makes older people feel valued, said Olin College anthropology professor Caitrin Lynch, who wrote a book about Vita Needle’s elderly workforce - “Retirement on the Line’’ - due out later this month. She spent five years studying Vita Needle, including one summer doing a variety of jobs on the production floor. Without work to make them feel relevant, Lynch said, senior citizens often feel invisible.
“People don’t even look at them, and if they do look at them, they look at them with pity,’’ Lynch said.
Bob O’Mara, a 75-year-old former chemical engineer, joked that he came to Vita Needle partly to escape his wife’s “honey do’’ list.
“If you’re doing something that somebody values and is willing to pay you for, then right away you feel affirmed,’’ O’Mara said.
Paul Duncan, 76, who used to own a communications consulting company and comes into Vita Needle at 4:30 a.m., said working gives life a purpose he didn’t find in “hanging around.’’
“A lot of people, if they didn’t have this place to come to,’’ he said, “they’d be dead.’’