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Never Too Old

Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - 13:12

In an economy constrained by the skills shortage, grey is the new black, writes Leon Gettler

The big challenge for over 50-year-olds in today's job market is to make themselves irresistible to prospective employers. It's no easy task – age discrimination is against the law in Australia but it is still rampant in the Australian job market. It can be done, but it takes the right attitude. It's an issue for job seekers and managers.

And there has to be plenty of attitude because of what older managers and workers are up against. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 45 to 64-year-olds have lower unemployment rates than those in the labour force generally. At the same time however, unemployed people in this age group often have more difficulty in obtaining work than younger job seekers. That means they are more likely to be out of work for longer if they lose their jobs.

An Australian Human Rights Commission report released in 2010 found a lot of evidence of age discrimination. "Research and consultations show that a number of people over 45 years of age feel they are pre-judged and rejected for reasons such as not 'fitting into the environment' or for being 'too qualified','' the report said.

"This can be made worse by what some describe as the general tendency of people to recruit people from their own age group. Some managers may prefer to hire younger workers to make sure that their own power or authority lines are kept clear."

According to a National Seniors Australia report published in May and titled The Elephant in the Room, companies are excluding older workers by placing job advertisements that contain phrases such as "fast-paced", "high-flyer" and "can-do". These are expressly inserted to exclude certain groups.

So with these challenges, how does an older worker go about nailing a job? How does that employee with years of experience turn themselves into an attractive target?

To begin with, managers over the age of 50 can use their experience as a selling point. Australia has a growing skills shortage partly because boomers are leaving the workforce faster than generation Y is entering. KPMG demographer Bernard Salt has called it the "baby bust". He said the boomer hegemony saw 200,000 people enter the workforce each year. This will fall to 100,000 by 2012, he said. It will continue scaling down, slipping to 50,000 by 2025.

That will create massive gaps, and more companies are likely to start turning to older workers. We are now seeing more older people working well into their 70s but not in traditional nine-to-five jobs.

They are moving into the labour force in new roles: part-timers, consultants, contractors and temps. In the next 10 years, finding new ways of working with a growing army of older people at arm's length from the organisation will be one of the most challenging managerial issues. It creates new job markets for boomers. In an economy constrained by skills shortages, the experience of boomers could become an asset for companies wanting to fill gaps.

Unfortunately, a recent AIM Victoria & Tasmania survey, Skills Gap, shows only 17 per cent of companies have programs in place to use the skills of retirees or former long-term employees. That will have to change. With the skills shortage, it will become a big management issue. And that's good news for boomer job seekers.

Experts say the most important part is to make sure age is not an issue. Much of it, they say, comes down to attitude.

Kathy Kostyrko, public sector director at recruitment agency Hays, said self-confidence is critically important for older job seekers. She said the worst thing people can do is look at their age as a barrier. "If I feel I am being discriminated against because of my age, I will become more defensive and protective," Kostyrko said.

Older job seekers should also be as flexible as possible. That might mean being prepared to take on lower paying work down the ranks in a company.

Career coaches say most dates should be left off resumes, especially for degrees earned decades earlier or jobs held long ago. Dates should only be used for recent positions. They say it is also important to be careful how you describe yourself. Rather than saying, for example, that you are a senior engineer or an engineer with 30 years' experience, it would be better to talk about your "diverse" or "extensive" experience.

National Seniors chief executive Michael O'Neill said employees should be maximising their skills while they are still employed so they can refer to these when they are seeking work. "That means updating what you're doing, getting training and ensuring your skills are current," O'Neill said.

He said it is important to ensure resumes look current and are presented in a way that recruiters are looking for. Get the important stuff about your achievements up top, don't list things in chronological order.

"You have to ensure it flows clearly and that the current skills and experience are highlighted loud and clear rather than being buried in detail," he said.

"A lot of recruitment processes are time poor so you have to get to them quickly. They will inevitably grab those that tell their story well rather than having to dig their way through all the detail."

He said older workers should also make extensive use of social networking, particularly sites such as LinkedIn.

He said it is also important for older workers to build networks, not only in their current work circles but beyond. Networks kick in when people are looking for work. "Strong networks within your own contacts are important. You need to make sure you use opportunities to maintain your social connectedness."

Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan said the first thing people should be aware of is that age discrimination is actually against the law.

"I think generally people who have been made redundant in their late 40s and early 50s may not be aware that this is actually against Commonwealth law and that the law gives them certain protections," Ryan said.

"They should also be aware that if they believe they have been discriminated against on the basis of age they can approach the Human Rights Commission and make a complaint.

"It's important for people to know that the complaints process at the commission is very straightforward. It's free and people don't need legal representation and it's handled by experts who are devoted entirely to handing this sort of work at the commission.

"In a lot of cases that have come forward, the person making the complaint gets satisfaction and it gets redressed."

That said, she said there are many other things people can do. And she agrees in the end, it all comes down to attitude.

"It's important for people in this vulnerable position to know that they are entitled to be rated on the merits of their application for the job," Ryan said.

"They have to be confident and assertive. Don't say 'I am too old, they won't look at me'. If you think you are qualified for the job, then really go for it and don't let these negative prejudices pull you back from giving it a go."

In for the long haul: How to stay in the job market

  • Keep your skills up to date.
  • Present good resumes. These should highlight skills and achievements to attract the eye of time-poor recruiters.
  • Make sure resumes get to the point first in highlighting your achievements. Don't bury the information. List the achievements at the top of the resume rather than ordering things chronologically.
  • Target the resume so that it highlights the experience that is relevant to the job you are pursuing.
  • Be careful with dates in your resume.
  • Make sure the resume shows you are up to date with current technology. Include a link to your LinkedIn profile. That shows hiring managers you're engaged in current means of communicating and networking.
  • Network and build contacts.
  • Use LinkedIn to build up contacts.
  • Look for companies with age-friendly hiring policies.
  • Be as flexible as possible. That might mean starting at a lower wage or position and working your way up.
  • Contact the Australian Human Rights Commission if you feel you have been discriminated against.