Over 55s may be forced to work for the dole – can employers benefit?

Employers, suffering a shortage of workers, may gain a slither of hope by reforms being considered by the Federal Government.

Employers, suffering a shortage of workers, may gain a slither of hope by reforms being considered by the Federal Government. A taskforce has apparently recommended to the government a proposal to make the unemployed aged over 55 seek full time work in order to collect the dole. However experts say the push to force the over 55s to work will fail unless accompanied by retraining schemes that include incentives for businesses to train.

The Australian reported this morning that a confidential draft report commissioned by the Government proposes that much harsher rules be applied to older jobseekers who are able to meet their dole obligations by doing part-time work or volunteering for 30 hours a fortnight.

“Generally, age-based participation requirements should no longer apply. Mature-age jobseekers should have standard job-search requirements as long as they are receiving an activity-test payment,” the report says.

There would be some exceptions for those aged 55 and over with no recent work experience, who could meet requirements through voluntary work or other approved activities, at the discretion of their employment services provider.

While the Government still has to consider the recommendations, experts welcome the move and say that the over 55s make up a great untapped resource. However a lot of work needs to go into the practicalities of making it work, they say.

Wayne Bishop runs the consulting firm Activetics, which advises companies on hiring strategies. “It’s fine to say there is a pool of people available aged over 55. But you have to look at ways to transition them,” he says. “Many don’t know where to go to get jobs and some have been knocked back and have lost confidence. There has to be more thought around how it will work.”

He says one key issue is retraining and re-skilling older workers, which can occur on the job or through TAFE and community colleges. “They are doing this well in the US,” he says.

The big issue of course is skilling the over 55s for the big changes in technology. “Often they are intimidated by the IT capabilities of younger workers. So you have to work out the best way to train them. This could be in teams rather than leaving them alone in front of a PC,” Bishop says.

Another issue is the ignorance in the SME sector. “People running small and medium businesses haven’t got HR people or experts to provide them with insights into workforce issues. They are traditionally so preoccupied with day-to-day tasks they don’t get involved in strategy,” he says. He says it is important that hiring over 55s is seen as a leadership issue. “You have got to get past the gate keepers. Many managers will give lip service to the idea of hiring over 55s but then think ‘not on my shift’. For a start they won’t be flexible with working arrangements. Many mature male managers are used to face-to-face cultures. They think if I can’t see them I can’t trust them. So employing over 55s is something that has to be taken up by the leaders of the company.”

Bishop also says employers need to understand the skill shortage is not going away. “There are a lot of employers in denial. But it is going to get a lot worse. One CEO said to me it was like the Y2K bug. A lot of bosses think it doesn’t apply to them until an incident when someone is going to retire and needs to be replaced or a key staff member is poached and they have trouble replacing them. Even when they are aware of the issue they don’t know what to do.”

However as Gill Walker from consultancy Evergreen points out, it is only going to get worse. “By 2012, 15% of the avaliable workforce will be aged under 45 years and 85% will be aged over 45 in Australia. If you don’t have a strategy and understanding of the mature worker then your business will be compromised,” she says.

She also counsels companies about how to adapt to mature workers. She says more people over 55 are working, particularly women. “We are seeing more women go back into the workforce once the children leave home and their husband’s retire. What’s the saying? Women get half the money and double the husband.”

Things are changing. “It is such a hot topic. There are lots of programs about to launch to help the over 55s. The rules around hiring the over 55s are also changing. If you wanted to employ someone over 50 and stated that in an ad it was discriminatory. But now web sites are being set up for over 50s to find jobs and there is more information about how to manage them.”

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