The battle to find and retain staff is going to get worse. Increasingly business is finding that the over-50s are willing – and very able – to step into the breach. By MIKE PRESTON.
By Mike Preston
The pool of available workers is drying up – and employers are finding that there are very real benefits in adapting recruitment practices to appeal to the ranks of the over-50s baby boomer workforce.
Baby boomers are taking back control of the executive suite, thanks in part to the worsening skills shortage.
A recent survey by The Executive Connection of 220 members found that 40% of management teams are weighted to baby boomers, up from 27% last year. Although Gen-Xers still have the strongest hold, dominating 54% of management teams, this is down from 69% last year.
The battle to find and keep staff is not going to end anytime soon. Demographic change means the skills shortage is going to get much, much worse.
Around 170,000 new workers currently join the Australian workforce each year, but modelling shows that by 2020 that number is likely to shrink to just 12,500 a year.
In other words, there will be fewer new workers each year by 2020 than there were jobs created last month.
The average age of the workforce will increase dramatically as the population ages, with the proportion of the population aged over 65 set to rise from its current 12% to 25%, or more than six million people, by 2050.
This stark equation is a wake-up call that Australian businesses are only now starting to hear.
Increasingly, business owners are coming to understand that the preference for recruiting young staff, a convention formed in the days when a new employee was likely to stay with the company for life, is unsustainable.
For those who are adapting their employment practices to where the workers are – in the ranks of the over 50s – the benefits are already becoming clear.
Studies show that not only are older workers five times less likely to change jobs than their Gen-Y colleagues, they also have significantly lower rates of absenteeism from work.
Tactics Consulting, an eastern states-based SME in the information and learning solutions sector, is one business that has widened its recruiting focus. Workers of baby boomer age or older make up around 15% of Tactics’s 70 strong workforce, and they occupy positions at all levels of the organisation.
“It’s a really good way to go, I strongly suggest SMEs look at it,” Tactics chief executive John Catlin says. “They’re just part of our strategy, but as a way of addressing turnover and increasing flexibility it has been incredibly successful.”
Catlin says apart from the obvious advantage of being able to tap into a larger pool of potential staff, the project-based nature of much of the work Tactics gets means it is able to offer the benefits of flexible work arrangements, which many older workers are after.
“Eight or nine months ago we had a demand from a client to put someone in Adelaide for a month with only a week’s warning. That would be hard for most people, but one of our guys who is in this older group was perfect – he loves Adelaide and so does his wife. And in a few days notice they could pick up and go to Adelaide without having to worry about getting the kids to school and the sort of thing,” Catlin says.
Flexibility could well prove to be the touchstone of recruiting success in the 21st century. From Gen-Ys to baby boomers, employees are seeking to exert greater control over how and when they work – and the skills shortage means employers will have little choice but to get on board.
Tactics has sought to deliver flexible work arrangements to employees of all ages, but Catlin says business owners need to understand that flexibility will mean something different to older and to younger workers.
“We’re finding older workers want flexibility, but they want a different flexibility to the Gen-Ys for example,” Catlin says. “They tend to want a minimum of three or four days, but that can come in a solid block of full-time work – a classic example is a guy we have in Canberra who told me he wants to work about 70% of the year, but he doesn’t care if it’s three days a week or a solid block of three months full-time, as long as he has time to write a book he is working on.”
Catlin says he can’t understand why more SMEs don’t take a more active approach to attracting and retaining older staff – the real question, he says, is how they think they will survive without doing so.
According to recruitment consultants who specialise in the area, employers often hold a variety of negative – and largely inaccurate – perceptions about older workers.
One common idea is that older workers are slow to learn new skills and can’t grasp new technologies – which is a complete myth, according to Paul Dickinson, an organisational psychologist and director of recruitment firm Plus40.
“Older people generally thrive in an environment that encourages learning,” he says. “The old adage that you can’t teach an old dog is totally incorrect.” He points to a recent BIS Shrapnel study that found 65% of older workers had paid to educate themselves to increase their employability, and an even higher proportion would do so with some employer assistance.
It can be true, however, that older people will learn in a slightly different way to their younger colleagues. Dickinson says older people tend to learn by doing, and may take a little longer to pick up unfamiliar skills, but are as able as people of any other age to grasp new ideas or technology.
Another common misconception is that SMEs find it too hard to offer older staff the flexible work arrangements they desire. Catriona Byrne, a director of recruitment company SageCo, says while there will always be some need for both parties to compromise, the smaller size of SMEs can work to their advantage.
“Nimbleness can be an SME’s greatest strength,” Byrne says. “Bigger workplaces may have more resources, but often they fall into the trap of rolling out a one-size-fits-all policy because they’re afraid if they offer flexibility to one person they have to give it to everyone.”
Byrne says the idea that baby boomers are not good at taking orders, especially from younger managers, is also more myth than reality.
“In my experience Gen-X and Y can also have the same problem, so really it’s about the particular person more than age. I do think there can be issues with a younger person managing an older person, like anything, but it’s manageable as long as you have the right conversations,” Byrne says.
And, if there are problems, the bottom line is that as with any candidate, a good interview process can weed them out. This has been an important part of the hiring program at Tactics, chief executive Catlin says.
“You can’t bring in every 50-plus person; they have to have a willingness to learn, be part of a team and be managed by someone who is younger that them, so the selection process has to be conducted carefully and sensitively,” he says.
Of course, the desperation for new staff that employers will increasingly experience means a smart recruitment and selection process will also be necessary to ensure success in attracting older job seekers.
Gill Walker, managing director of Evergreen Marketing and Communications – and an expert diviner of the attitudes of older people – provides these tips for SMEs seeking to recruit baby boomers and older workers:
Older workers will often be less worried about how much they will be paid than whether the job will fit in with their other life priorities.
Often that will mean more time for holidays or to spend with family, but older people are more likely to have care responsibilities towards partners or parents, Walker says. “For older people it’s all about that work/life balance, and managers need to take it upon themselves to hear what they need and help them achieve that.”
Health is a priority
The single biggest reason people retire from the workforce is failing health. Walker says research suggests the best way to attract and retain older workers is to implement workplace policies that encourage them to take time out to look after their health.
“Bunnings is great example – they have a policy of getting experienced and retired tilers and carpenters to work for them, but they can’t stand on a concrete shop floor all day, so they have had to allow people to have more breaks and work half-days,” Walker says.
SMEs many need to adopt different communication methods to get their message out to the mature workforce, Walker says.
“You can’t just put a job ad in Seek and expect to hit that demographic,” Walker says. “Some will be there, but for those who haven’t used the internet as an everyday process, say a factory worker, you might go to a local paper as well.”
Studies show that quality of management is a key determinant of whether or not older workers will choose to stay in the workforce. This expresses itself in a range of ways – from the trust required to work from home, to implementing effective learning strategies, or just being available to talk to older workers about their needs.
“A lot depends on pure management skills – these people will often be the best brains in a workplace and good managers will listen to what they need to keep working,” Walker says.
It’s not all about age
It may be convenient to group people together as baby boomers or Gen-Ys, but the fact is that individuals have their own needs and motivations that set them apart from their demographic.
“Often there are great similarities between Gen-Ys and boomers – and, for that matter, boomers looking for a candidates will often eat their own young and, because we have ageist society, they will go for the young one,” Walker says.