Corporations start to install revolving doors for retirees

An eccentric, lively character with an Austrian accent, Adolph (Al) Mendl, has returned to the game. His encore may be a sign of retirements to come in this country.

''This is the game,'' he says, with a gesture that takes in not just his photo-lined office but the whole space program, much of which is housed in the surrounding miles. ''It's like the fatherland.''

He left a long time ago. Eager to pursue other interests, this optical engineer at Aerospace Corporation retired in 1967.

Dr. Mendl had a lot of other things he had always wanted to do. A photographer by trade, he became a paparazzo, snapping candid photographs of celebrities at Hollywood and Beverly Hills parties and openings. He tried making commercials, but couldn't open the right doors. (''It's who you know,'' he says.)

He had plenty of money, a house in Beverly Hills, and he was having fun.

But Dr. Mendl came back. He came back because he was needed here; this, the space program, is his life's endeavor, the ''fatherland.''

''I decided that green pastures are not how I enjoy life,'' he says. ''I enjoy life here.''

Aerospace, a defense contractor that does engineering for the Air Force and NASA, needed Dr. Mendl's expertise and asked him back first as a consultant. Then he came back on board with both feet.

''I didn't want to leave my buddies,'' he says.

The coming back to work of Dr. Mendl does not mark a strong trend today. But eventually it will, according to the best estimates of a growing number of corporate planners. The trend they are waiting for - not so much in this decade as in those that follow - is that older workers who reach retirement age will retire and then come back to work.

Planners hope they will come back to work, because they will be needed.

Not so much now. Now there are too many workers for most kinds of work. But by the turn of the next century, according to companies who have looked ahead that far, skilled labor will be in short supply. Corporations will need to hold onto the expertise of retirement-age people a little longer.

Already there are cases like that of some Air Force Atlas missiles that were failing after long storage. The Air Force finally brought back the three retired engineers who had developed the missile in the first place, according to Bob Rubenstein, who heads senior-worker programs at Aerospace, and they worked the problem out.

''There's an immediate problem of youth unemployment,'' says Robert W. Feagles, senior vice-president at Travelers Insurance, one of the companies that has taken up the issue, ''but if we look across the valley we see a different problem.''

That problem is that the country's labor force is growing more slowly than the total population. In other words, working people are gradually supporting more and more nonworking people. ''The demographics are clear.''

The answer at Travelers has been to open a job bank for retirees who want part-time work. At any given time now, there are around 50 retired workers on part-time assignment at the company headquarters in Hartford, Conn.

The workers chiefly want the extra income, but they also feel the need to do something valuable, to get out of the house a bit. They enjoy the company of their coworkers. The supervisors are delighted, says Mr. Feagles, because they get part-time help that knows the system.

These are clerical workers, but Travelers has started organizing use of retired executives in recent months as well. They are hired as consultants on a project-by-project basis. Mr. Feagles stresses that no retired worker will stymie the career of someone working full time and none will keep a young, new worker from being hired.

Other companies, like Aerospace and Arco, are changing their policies to make it easier for retirees to return to work without losing pension rights.

''The opportunities are not as great now as we hope they will be in the future,'' says Blair Hyde, manager of Arco's senior-worker programs, ''but we want the policies on the books.''

Ideas like these start as attitudes, then policies, then practices, explains Helen Dennis of the University of Southern California's Andrus School of Gerontology. ''I think it's just beginning now. Managers, CEOs, are all of a sudden looking at a resource that has been sitting there for years.''

It's happening first in Southern California's aerospace industry, where it is common practice to retire from one company and start collecting a pension while going to work for another company. So firms like Aerospace are deciding it makes more sense to rehire their own retired people rather than those who have retired from a competitor. If it means paying out a pension and a salary at the same time to the same person, that's no more expensive than paying a pension and a salary to two different workers.

But this is only the corporate side of the story. On the other side are people like Dr. Mendl, who wants to work. ''I don't like to play cards in the park,'' he says, as if he would even consider that option.

Work, he says, ''is a discipline in my life. All of a sudden freedom comes and you don't know what to do with it.'' And now, returning to work after retirement, ''I think I enjoy it more because I'm doing it, in essence, voluntarily.''

Walter Scheid, a construction coordinator, was also called out of retirement by Aerospace. He had expected just to retire in 1977 and travel with his wife, but as it happened, her health confined her to the house.

''There are only so many times you can clean out the garage,'' he says. So when construction picked up again at Aerospace, he came back. His job is one that takes an experienced familiarity with all aspects of construction, building codes, architectural and engineering drawings, as well as such specialized trades as classified (secret) construction for defense projects.

People like Mr. Scheid on the job may have a mellowing influence on the work scene. ''As you get older, you get more respect from the people around you,'' he observes. ''It's more of a relaxed atmosphere.'' One reason is that younger workers don't feel as competitive toward someone who is no longer seen as a climber after higher positions.

''I'm the type that would rather work than sit around,'' Mr. Scheid says. ''I'm not the fisherman type and I'm not the golfing type, and there's not much else you can do.'' Instead, since he is earning money, he bought a Cadillac Eldorado.

Dr. Mendl states it a little more pointedly: ''I can do the work; I am capable of doing it, and maybe just a little better than others.''

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