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Sunday, July 1, 2007 - 11:33

Experience, mentoring and problem solving are only some of the benefits that Australian employers gain from wooing the mature-age worker. By Deborah Tarrant

Seeing is believing. When Sandra Edwards, Human Resources Manager for sheet metal manufacturer Form 2000 joined the company in the late 1990s, its eight employees were in their 20s. Younger staff were perceived to be better, she says, until perchance they hired a casual, a retiree in his late 50s.

His punctuality, reliability, versatility and pure commonsense turned their heads. He was supposed to stay for a couple of weeks but ended up staying with the company for four years. In that time, he had one sick day.

Edwards and her fellow managers didn’t look back. Today the company, based in Mordialloc, south of Melbourne, has 50 employees, around half of whom are mature age workers (that is, 45 and over) spread across the business in all kinds of roles, from admin to the factory floor where a 63-year-old is currently undertaking a Certificate 3 traineeship in general fabrication, alongside an 18-year-old.

Older workers deliver the benefit of experience. They tend to be great problem solvers and make valuable mentors, observes Edwards, and “bring different things to the table”. Form 2000 has won awards in recognition of its trailblazing approach to older employees.

Mature wooing

The importance of wooing, winning and holding mature age workers as one means of addressing skills shortages has been on the national agenda for more than five years. Australia’s low birthrate coupled with the vast demographic bulge of baby boomers heading for retirement – for each new entrant to the labour market there are seven people aged 45 and over in the workforce – presents an economic threat that’s exciting demographers, academics, senior bureaucrats, politicians and infrastructure providers. Most pertinently, it has become a matter of survival for employers.

Organisations have been urged to conduct workforce audits to explore the impact of the ageing workforce on their talent pool, labour force and productivity. They are advised to introduce ways to delay retirement and eliminate misconceptions about older workers.

Large employers such as Australia Post swung into action after facing the reality that the average age of its 35,000 workers was 44, seven years higher than the national average; big financial institutions like Westpac were quick in 2003 with announcements that it would hire 900 mature age workers; hot on its heels was competitor ANZ with the introduction in mid-2004 of a Career Extension program guaranteeing employees aged 55 and over the right to work part-time; with its global perspective, fast learner IBM recognised the issue wasn’t simply an HR problem and that it had to be addressed broadly across the business.

While such companies pioneered mature age recruitment and retention strategies, other employers were caught in a rousing round of rhetoric as they paid lip-service to the notion of appealing to older workers but grappled with how to make it happen. Veteran recruiter Peter Tanner of Tanner Menzies described “the rich irony that while we have a skills shortage, many of our mature age workers are finding it hard to get a job”.

Changing mindsets

A shift in mindset was in order on both sides of the story. From the employers perspective, the youth-orientation of recruiters and line managers needed to be addressed. Even today, says Catherine Foley of Hays Age Advantage, a specialist division of an established recruitment firm, “when faced with older candidates, managers generally are concerned about organisational and team fit.”

Older workers also needed to adapt and consider different ways of working, retraining and, perhaps, easing into retirement. The concept of early retirement as a carefree round of golf days and overseas trips, when experienced, turned out to be less appealing than many had imagined.

Research has dispelled many of the myths. It has shown mature age workers:

  • share the same productivity levels as younger workers
  • use experience and skills to offset physiological ageing factors, retaining good cognitive skills into their 80s
  • have fewer absent and sick days than their younger counterparts
  • are just as flexible as younger people at work; and
  • take an interest in training and career progression when programs are tailored to their knowledge and experience.

There are clear signs the issue has gained traction in the mainstream. One in two employees now expects to work full time past the age of 60, according to a recent Hays survey, while a Treasury paper, Older Men Bounce Back, shows reality has already bitten. Participation in the workforce by men aged 55-64 has gone from below 61 per cent in 2000 to more than 66 per cent, reported the paper, as the number of women at work in the same age group increased 9 per cent in five years.

At the frontline, Swinburne University’s Business, Work and Ageing (BWA) Unit headed by Associate Professor Louise Rolland has been running continuous research projects, supported by grants and big corporates who recognised the do-or-die issue. (A further sign that it’s a mainstream issue is the move by BWA’s three workplace consultants into professional services firm Ernst & Young.)

Put simply, there’s no one particular role or sector that better suits mature age workers, but flexibility is the key to keeping people working for longer, according to Rolland: it’s a big term with a wide application. Despite hollering about generational differences and preferences, international trends now show that generic approaches to particular age groups in the labour market don’t work. No one-size-fits-all solution exists for any specific age category. “The approach needs to be more sophisticated,” Rolland explains.

Flexibility

Statistically, 30 per cent of people who retire early do so for reasons of ill health or injury.
Beyond this, a series of factors influence older workers’ voluntary decisions to hang in or call it quits, Rolland says, beginning – not surprisingly – with financial considerations.

Vitally important are the design and structure of a job, that is, “the need for a job that is interesting and challenging” and that can be done in the hours and location preferred. Perhaps they want to do the same job part time, or work remotely? Shorter hours shouldn’t automatically equate to a less stimulating role.

Under the flexibility banner are an abundance of possibilities, including allowing people to take a career break to contemplate whether they want to retire, go part time, switch roles, job share or undertake a phased retirement where the number of days worked reduces gradually. All are options at IBM where the oldest employee is 80, and where a choice for older workers is going to work for just one month each quarter, says Katrina Troughton, IBM’s General Manager, New Zealand, who heads the company’s diversity program. In many positions, it’s feasible, but as Troughton indicates, “it has to work both for the role and for the person.”

The linchpin of success with a mature age workforce is in the attitudes and behaviours of leaders and managers. “Leaders need to be prepared to walk the talk and managers must be able to negotiate flexible work and deal with the issues of mature age workers,” Rolland emphasises.

Better business outcomes

Hard evidence shows older employees generate better business outcomes. Initially Westpac made headway with its managers by highlighting mature age workers’ higher retention rates, lower number of one-day absences and higher productivity levels once established in a role. “Holding on to an employee for a year can create a significant saving to a business,” says Rolland.

Concerns such as younger managers feeling uncomfortable dealing with older employees are countered by awareness. “It’s about asking managers to confront their biases and adjust their mindsets,” advises Troughton.

At ANZ, where the average retirement age moved from 54 years in 2001 to 58 in 2006, and where 40 per cent of employees 55 and over now work part time, a new My Flexibility policy prompts managers and employees to address the issue head-on.

Under the policy, at least twice a year an employee and his or her manager are required to discuss and agree on flexible work arrangements. “Employees are encouraged to consider different flexible approaches to their own jobs – and come up with two options. We want people to have a conversation on the subject,” says ANZ’s Head of Diversity, Fiona Krautil.

The bank is also running a hotline where people can share success stories and has plans to announce Flexibility Champions.

An integrated approach is also preferred at Post. “People at all career stages may have reasons to take time out or reduce working hours,” says Carmen Lawrence, Post’s Manager of Age and Youth Strategy.

Flexibility can’t be gauged by crunching numbers, she points out, “it’s about individual lives.” Currently, Post is using a narrative approach, through an external agency, to help get ‘real life’ data and experiences from employees and managers about the whole issue of work/life balance, their expectations and what’s on their minds. Once recurrent themes are identified a tool kit will be provided to support managers who are also undergoing training in coaching skills.

Continued learning

A common glitch for managers is overlooking older workers for learning and development opportunities. “Offering training to older people flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but they want to know the organisation is interested in their relevance,” says Louise Rolland, who runs a continuous survey of 13,000 Australian mature age workers in which a common theme is the negative view of age and its impact on continuing opportunity for people as they age.

Equally important are rewards and recognition. “Some workplaces think that older people have been doing it for years, so they’ll just keep doing it, and only give pats on the back to younger workers,” she says.

Older people reinventing themselves in new working environments probably require specialised treatment. In the recruitment process, Form 2000’s Sandra Edwards suggests there’s a risk of missing good people by basing hiring decisions solely on an interview. Out of practice or knocked around by missing out on jobs too often, they can be incredibly nervous, she says. “You need to give them a go to see what they’re made of.”

A rare collaboration between corporates including BP and Westpac is also tackling this with a pre-training program for candidates for entry-level customer service roles. The program reacquaints people with work and provides training in technologies, potentially circumventing difficulties faced in a normal corporate employment screening process.

Like Edwards, they are finding it pays to look beyond face value.

Dispelling old stereotypes

Slow and out of touch? Forget it! Cognitive skills, such as language or the ability to process complex problems, improve with age. “Speed and precision can be substituted by the high motivation and experience of ageing workers”, says Age Quake, a white paper from recruitment firm, Drake International.

Physical frailty. It’s true, somewhere around the age of 45 many people face a decline in physical work capacity. However, older people have fewer accidents and their work methods and strategies, resulting from experience, can take their effectiveness to a higher level than it was in their younger years.

Moving with misfits. One oversight is in believing an older worker may not fit a younger team. More than fit, they can become mentors, and Access Economics reports they exert a steadying influence on younger workers. A more critical question may be “do they fit with your customer base?” says Catherine Foley of Hays Age Advantage. “There are plenty of areas where older customers prefer to deal with someone who is more mature.” Wise ways are positively embraced where the customer profile is older: think financial planning, call centres, hospitality and tourism roles, to name just a few.

Computer illiterates. There’s no doubt that a baby boomer may at first seem slower on the uptake to learn new technology than a gen Y member. But while older people may take longer, they have good learning capacity and retain information better than younger counterparts. Access Economics research also reveals mature workers stay longer at an organisation after training.