New retirement gap is blue- and white-collar

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2013 - 9:55 PM

The economy is driving more to work longer, which is tough for those with physically taxing jobs.

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Donna Alexander, 67, ironed her security officer uniform. She likes her job, but the hours on her feet have taken a toll. She’s had multiple operations and can’t retire yet because she needs her health insurance.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Special to the Star Tribune

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Ken Bueckers loved being a pipe fitter. It took him to the tops of tall buildings and to furnaces below. He yanked valves open and wrestled pipe into crawl spaces.

In a perfect world he would still be doing that. He’s 69, but he has a clear mind and 32 years of experience. He and his wife could use the extra income. “I would probably go out and do it if my body would let me,” he said.

At a time when financial necessity is forcing many Americans to work longer, some don’t have that option. Bueckers is one of millions of blue-collar workers who have grown too old for blue-collar work.

White-collar professionals like consultants, lawyers and accountants are often able to retire gradually, finding ways to keep earning money in fields where they have connections and skills. Almost two-thirds of Americans between 45 and 60 say they plan to delay retirement, according to the Conference Board research group, thanks in large part to a recession that ripped into retirement accounts and home values.

But workers in physically demanding jobs are less likely to keep working, and more likely to enroll early for Social Security, according to the AARP. For most blue-collar workers — pipe fitters, oil workers, roofers and many factory workers — the options are to shift to what will likely be lower-paying work, or to stop working at all.

It’s pretty clear, if you’re a blue-collar worker and you’re physically unable to work, you don’t have as many options as a white-collar worker,” said Steve Vernon, a scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity. “That is a problem, and there are no easy answers.”

Tom Fossum, 60, of Minneapolis, was a concrete laborer for 32 years.

He poured concrete at the Mall of America and for high-rises in the Twin Cities.

But as he got older, the lifting, bending and kneeling hurt his back and then his knees. Now he has two knee replacements.

“They basically retired me at age 54, because I couldn’t do my job anymore,” Fossum said. “I’d love to do concrete again, but it just ain’t happening.”

His pension through Laborers Local 563 is about two-thirds what it would be if he’d been able to work until 62. And it’s not just the money that’s missing.

“You get out every day, and meet friends and you work all day,” Fossum said. “Time goes by fast.”

In 2012, more than 500,000 Minnesotans worked in what can be reasonably considered a blue-collar industry, like manufacturing, warehousing, construction, transportation, logging or mining, according to census data.

Even by that narrow definition — not including blue-collar jobs in government, education and health care — roughly 228,000 blue-collar workers in the state are between 45 and 64 years old.

“Roofers are probably not going to continue roofing after they retire,” said Tom Gillaspy, the semiretired former state demographer. “Statisticians may very well continue to work after they retire.”

On the job at 75

Herb Schechter worked until he was 66 at the accounting firm he helped found, Schechter Dokken Kanter, and retired in 2004.

  • related content

  • Herb Schechter, 75, a former accountant, went to work at Minneapolis Portfolio Management Group after a brief retirement from his firm. “I really had no desire to play golf every day,” he said.

  • Ken Bueckers, 69, a former pipe fitter whose back has blown out several times, worked on his morning stretching routine. He loved his job but quit work when he was 56, at his doctor’s insistence. “I would probably go out and do it if my body would let me,” he said. Blue-collar workers in physically punishing jobs tend to have fewer options if they want to keep working as they age.

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