BBC Capital

Generation Work

Why your grandfather might land a job before you do

About the author

Ronald is a freelance writer and editor and the author of eight books, including his latest, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. Previously, Ronald had a long career as an editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

(Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

(Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

As the global job market slowly improves, many employers are devoting their recruiting efforts to the millennial generation and Generation X. But not West Virginia University Hospitals.

Annette Belcher, a senior human resources officer at the hospital system, is actively reaching out to baby boomers — and even older individuals — at senior citizen expos and recruiting events for military veterans.

“We want to let older workers know that we really value them,” Belcher said. “We like their work commitment, life skills and knowledge, plus we need experienced staff to mentor and train our younger hires. Typically, we also see longer tenures with our over-50 workforce than with younger employees.”

Currently, more than a quarter of the employees at West Virginia University Hospitals are 50 or older, and their average tenure approaches 15 years.

This workforce management approach is clearly the exception. “I don’t know why more companies don’t get on the bandwagon and hire older people,” Belcher said. “But that’s good for us because we have less competition.”

To many labour market experts, Belcher is doing exactly the right thing in trying to attract and retain the 50-plus generation. The exodus of baby boomers from the workplace will accelerate in coming years, leaving many employers facing a skills shortage. Although some people plan to delay retirement because of limited savings or simply a desire to remain active, many will be on the way out over the next decade.

“Employers need to think of older workers as a discrete group to retain, not as a group that’s done — or they’re done with,” said Jeffrey Joerres, chairman and chief executive officer of ManpowerGroup, a staffing and workforce consulting firm. Too many companies, he added, take the short-sighted view of retirement as a cost-saving opportunity.

Making the most of senior talent

Manpower’s 2013 global survey of more than 38,000 employers found that 35% had difficulty finding suitable candidates for certain jobs. Joerres noted that hiring or retaining people over 50 is especially important for positions that require particular trade skills.

“So many young people have been driven into four-year colleges and haven’t seen the honour of trade schools and apprenticeship programs,” he said.

Not only do few employers actively recruit older workers, but many also aren’t making the most of the senior talent they already have. Towers Watson, which advises companies on talent management strategies, found in a recent study that more than half of the UK organisations surveyed were unprepared to capitalise on the skills and experience of their aging workforces.

 “Companies aren’t having conversations with older workers about how to best use their skills and whether they’d like to be doing other jobs in the organisation,” said Yves Duhaldeborde, a director in the talent and rewards segment at Towers Watson.

Talent management experts advise businesses to overcome age bias and offer older employees and job applicants development opportunities and more options, including flexible hours, part-time work, consulting roles, and temporary assignments.

A study last year by the Society for Human Resource Management and AARP found most companies were concerned about losing older talent but were doing little to address the issue. Nearly three-quarters of the HR managers at both US and multinational companies said they consider the forthcoming talent drain, brought on by baby boomers retiring, a problem, but only 13% had provided training to upgrade the skills of older workers and only 12% had encouraged them to stay past the traditional retirement age. Even fewer (4%) had asked older employees for feedback on what would encourage them to stay, or had established alternative career tracks for them (3%).

Those results match an earlier Manpower study of more than 28,000 employers in 25 countries. The 2007 report revealed that only 14% of employers had strategies to recruit older workers and only 21% had developed retention policies. There were exceptions. Encouraged by government legislation and incentive programs, companies in Japan and Singapore were far ahead of employers in other countries in trying to keep older workers.

Negative perceptions

Most employers can’t get past their negative perceptions of older workers.

Among the most common complaints: Older workers are less motivated and less productive; they cost more in terms of both salary and benefits; they are more prone to accidents and illness and take more day offs; they won’t hang around long enough to make the investment worthwhile.

While those observations may hold true to some extent, they also may be exaggerated or outdated. For instance, older workers may get sick more, but they aren’t likely to incur expenses for pregnancies and childhood illnesses. What’s more, a research project funded by the US Social Security Administration found that the aging workforce isn’t hurting productivity, in part because the elderly today tend to be well educated.

“You think of older workers as having less stamina and being more fragile,” Tower Watson’s Duhaldeborde said. “But they are actually quite resilient and able to cope well with pressure. They’re very aligned with the objectives of the organisation and focus more on quality and how they can do better for the customer.”

Employers also shouldn’t assume older workers don’t want training and development programmes. Many are still interested in fresh challenges.

“We train older people in new skills all the time to work in member services, the health and fitness centre, childcare and administration,” said Fernan Cepero, chief human resources officer at the YMCA in Rochester, New York.

Some colleagues ask Cepero whether his older recruits are stuck in their ways, but he says that definitely hasn’t been the case at the Y.

“They’re eager to learn,” he said. “They don’t feel they’ve done it all and know it all.”

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