When Kay Yarbrough took the plunge as a franchisee four years ago, she didn't expect to become an expert on managing a work force whose ages spanned 60 years.

But even as the economy slips, staffing remains one of the biggest headaches for business owners, and they'd better be prepared to manage purple-haired teenagers as well as their more sedate grandparents. Ms. Yarbrough's small Apex, N.C., Packaging and Shipping Specialist (P.A.S.S.) outlet is a case in point.

Ms. Yarbrough, 45, left her position as a transportation analyst for a pharmaceuticals company in 1996, and she bought the P.A.S.S. franchise. Ms. Yarbrough's store, one of the Lubbock, Texas-based chain's 524 locations, is in a promising spot. It serves the thriving community around Research Triangle Park filled with consultants and home-based workers who need access to fax machines, mailboxes and miscellaneous office support.

As her business grows -- she estimates her total sales in 2000 topped $300,000 -- Ms. Yarbrough must deal with the flip side of such a dynamic location: scarce labor. The unemployment rate for the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metro area hovers at a scant 1.7%. With no previous management experience, Ms. Yarbrough oversees a work force of between four to eight, depending on the season. All positions are part-time, offer no health insurance or pension benefits and pay an average of $6.50 per hour.

Those parameters mean that Ms. Yarbrough's workers come from both ends of the age spectrum -- high schoolers entering the job market for the first time and retirees looking for ways to supplement their incomes and keep busy.

The two groups hold starkly different attitudes toward work. "Today's teens -- the Millennial generation -- have never known an endangered economy," says Claire Raines, co-author of Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workforce (Amacom, 2000). "They've grown up in the healthiest job market we've ever had," and feel entitled to take a job for granted. Conversely, older workers grew up in a time when the Great Depression and World War II were still very much in the air. Work was a privilege. Small firms like Ms. Yarbrough's will find the ability to manage diverse generations increasingly important, Ms. Raines says.

For Ms. Yarbrough, the trick has been to play to their strengths. Mature workers, for instance, are skillful with customers, Ms. Yarbrough says. "I think there is just a natural ease in dealing with people that comes with having so much experience," she reckons. Most of her younger workers require considerable training in working with customers. She points to an instance where one of her teenagers admonished a customer for failing to wrap a package in accordance with shipping industry standards. "The poor customer, having just spent an hour at the kitchen table with scissors and tape, was understandably frustrated," she says.

But dealing with change in the workplace is not a strong suit of Ms. Yarbrough's graying staffers. Nor is their command of modern office technology. When a new point-of-service software system was recently installed, it rattled several older employees to the point where they had to be reassigned to tasks elsewhere in the store. "I got the feeling they believed that if they hit the wrong key, the computer would explode," she recalls. The younger workers, reared in front of personal computers, required minimal training to pick up the new system.

Given her small space and the physical demands of the shipping business, strength and agility are other qualities Ms. Yarbrough must consider when assigning tasks in an age-diverse workforce. She tries to leave the back-office duties, some of which require the use of a ladder to reach high shelves, to more youthful workers. She learned that lesson when an employee in her 70s took a spill in the storage room. Ms. Yarbrough found duties for the woman behind a desk, but the employee later left due to health concerns.

"I learned the hard way that not everybody working here can do every task here," Ms. Yarbrough explains. "I just have to be creative in assigning people to jobs that fit their strengths."

Ms. Yarbrough also is impressed by her older workers' punctuality, a product of rigid corporate rules of the 1950s and 1960s. "I've never known one to be even a minute late," she says. In contrast, Ms. Yarbrough notices her teenage staffers routinely wandering in five to ten minutes late. Fed up with one habitually tardy teen, Ms. Yarbrough began instructing him to come to work half an hour earlier than he was actually needed in order to ensure he showed up on time.

The two groups have gotten along just fine -- perhaps because they rarely see each other. The store's older employees tend to work during weekdays while the teens are in school. "By the time my teenagers get here," says Ms. Yarbrough, "my retirees are already home getting ready for dinner."

-- Mr. Bivins is a writer in Raleigh, N.C.

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