Retirees work for community needs

Deep in the labyrinth of offices that make up the headquarters building of Honeywell Inc. here - down the stairs and along a windowless corridor - is an unprepossessing room. It is an office like a million others in companies around the nation, but with one major difference. The workers in it do not get paid, and they work when, and if, they please.

This room is the headquarters of the Honeywell Retiree Volunteer Project (HRVP), an organization of 500 former company employees who offer their time and talents as volunteers under the umbrella of the company they used to work for. Together they contribute thousands of hours of unpaid help annually to the Twin Cities community in a program that may be the first of its kind.

The program is run by retirees for retirees. Its goal is to ''reengage the talents of the retirees,'' to fill the void that retirement sometimes brings, and to meet a community need in the process.

HRVP begins with an advantage other volunteer agencies don't have. It knows each person's work history and technical skills, and the level of those skills.

''Our focus is more on the people than the agencies,'' says Elmer A. Frykman, director of the program and himself a retiree. ''We like to find something meaningful for each person. We know our people and we understand them. They're still involved with the company in some way. After you've spent 30 years with a company, you can't just wash it out of your life.''

HRVP's volunteers work in more than 20 categories, ranging from predictable hospital and nursing home activities to unique programs that have been set up to match special needs to unusual abilities.

Mr. Frykman believes the match between volunteer and job is the most important aspect of the program. ''Matching the need and the ability, you really have to listen. People are very flexible. They can do a number of things well, but they don't usually want to be in a competitive situation after they retire.

''The people we have working for us seem to have a lot going for them,'' Mr. Frykman says. ''They seem happy, like to talk about it. It's been said that 80 percent of working people don't like their jobs. They're looking forward to retirement. When they come into this office, it may be the first time they can choose what they want to do.''

The idea of a volunteer program for retired Honeywell employees came out of the company's Committee for Corporate and Community Responsibility, which provides the impetus for a variety of community-oriented activities in the Twin Cities area.

''At first it was just a trial balloon,'' Mr. Frykman says. ''They had not tapped into retirees before this. At first we didn't even have an office. Whoever was on vacation, I got their office.''

As part of this ''trial balloon,'' the company sent out a questionnaire in October 1978. The survey asked all Honeywell retirees in the Twin Cities area if they were interested in volunteer work. Out of the 10 percent who responded, half were interested.

Mr. Frykman was in that half. In March 1979, he was invited to come in and talk about the survey. He did, and became the coordinator of the project. He volunteers two days a week. He is the only paid worker.

He and another man began calling retirees at random to find out if 5 percent participation was all they could expect.

''We called both those who had responded to the survey and those who had not, '' he says. ''To our amazement we found equal enthusiasm on both lists. Many people simply hadn't bothered to fill out the questionnaire.

''About 50 percent of the people were interested in participating. Everyone we talked to thought it was a good idea, except one man who didn't think we should use retirees to replace paid help. I don't think so, either, but that isn't our thrust.''

Mr. Frykman believes HRVP is the first attempt by a large corporation to develop a volunteer program designed for every retiree who is interested.

''This program is a great leveler,'' he says. ''We've got half union people and half office and technical. Men and women volunteer almost equally. We have the whole gamut of professions and skills represented, and never does this become a point of polarization.

''People who had structured jobs tend to feel comfortable in structured situations as volunteers. Those who had jobs with more opportunities for creativity are usually looking for creative opportunities. A tool-and-die maker might want to continue with tool-and-die making. On the other hand, an accountant might not want to see another number. There are secretaries working in food shelves and clothing distribution centers. They don't want to go back to the shorthand notebook.''

Evidence indicates that the program is filling a need. Worker turnover is only about 5 percent a year.

Honeywell underwrites the program. The annual cost runs between $25,000 and $ 30,000. Part of this is for office space. The controllable funds are about $16, 000. This pays for supplies, mileage, lunches, an occasional trip, and other small perks.

Volunteers often find talents they didn't know they had. An unmarried woman who had had almost no contact with children in her adult life is now in her third year as a tutor for Women in Service to Education (WISE). ''You won't believe it,'' she reported to Mr. Frykman, ''but the kids fight over me at recess to see who can walk with me.''

William Peck, who works in the HRVP office two days a week, recruits a team of volunteers each January to take training from the Internal Revenue Service and Minnesota tax experts so they can fan out to senior centers to help individuals prepare income tax statements.

The agency waits several months before calling new retirees. ''We used to talk to them at the retirement seminars the company holds,'' Mr. Frykman says. ''We don't do that anymore. They have too many other things on their minds then. We give them our brochure. Then we wait until they have had time to catch their breath and realize they are not in a vacation situation. We try not to get into a talk on volunteerism on the phone. The message to retirees is what we can do for them.

''I think at first the regular agencies saw us as novices, but now, with the economy as it is, and everybody looking for money, agencies are coming to us for help. I have a list of 600 job descriptions.''

Other Honeywell divisions have started similar programs or are considering them. More than 150 companies have inquired about the project. Twin Cities corporations such as Sperry Univac and Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing have begun retiree programs.''There is great satisfaction here,'' Mr. Frykman concludes.

''There are no negatives that I can see. We never have a day when we go home frustrated, like we used to sometimes in our working years. I don't know any aspect of this program that's tiresome, irksome, or leads to frustration. It's just a win-win situation all the way.''

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