The Australian government has launched an initiative that will pay employers to hire older workers. Starting July 1, employers will receive $1,000 for every worker aged 50 or older that they hire and retain for at least three months.
“We still need to deal with a cultural issue in the Australian business community that sometimes looks past the value of older workers,” said Minister for Ageing Mark Butler in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company.
“We know that older workers have lower absenteeism, they have higher retention rates and they bring with them extraordinary wisdom and experience. We just need to push through this barrier that some Australian employers still have.”
The government has committed $10 million over four years to the Jobs Bonus initiative, in response to the 2011 report Realising the Economic Potential of Senior Australians, which highlighted the value of older workers.
But this may not be the right course of action, said Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy at CARP, a Toronto-based advocacy group for people over 50.
“I understand the motivation but I’m not particularly thrilled with the method. It suggests that an older worker is somehow flawed and you, therefore, have to pay somebody to hire them,” she said. “If you’re trying to resolve and overcome age discrimination in hiring, why reinforce this stereotype by offering a sweetener?”
Unemployed workers over 55 have often been displaced due to a plant closure or layoff, face longer periods of unemployment than younger workers, end up in lower paying jobs or retire earlier than they otherwise would have, according to the 2011 report Labour-Force Participation of Older Displaced Workers in Canada by University of Ottawa professors Ross Finnie and David Gray.
And 20 per cent of older workers retire because they have been laid off, according to a 2008 Statistics Canada survey.
Age discrimination is an issue and one way it manifests is when employers think older workers are overqualified. But this shouldn’t be a deterrent because they will still be absolutely committed, said Angela MacMaster, manager of recruitment and retention at Dalhousie University in Halifax, which has a mutigenerational workforce and hires many older workers.
“They may have retired but they decide that retirement life may not be what they expected or they feel in their retirement days they weren’t really ready to retire, or they want to do something different, want to make a contribution in a different way,” she said.
Employers may also overlook older workers because they don’t have industry-specific experience, said Christine Stoneman, COO of GT Hiring Solutions in Victoria.
“The difficulty some employers have is recognizing the transferable skills and the experience that older workers have,” she said. “They tend to look at the applicant more linear: ‘Have they worked in our industry? Have they done this work before? Well, they haven’t and they’re an older worker so I’m going to discount that individual.’”
Older workers at 5,750-employee Dalhousie University can be found in a variety of positions across campus including administration, management, information technology, custodial and facilities support — although they may not necessarily have a lot of experience in those areas.
Identifying transferable skills is something the university does during the hiring process, said MacMaster.
“You need to look very closely not at the technical side but the competency piece, like initiative, proactivity, customer service,” she said. “Look at the competencies as opposed to maybe a checklist of ‘does’ and ‘does not.’”
There are many misconceptions about older workers, such as they are slower to learn new technology, said Angella MacEwen, an Ottawa-based senior economist at the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and research associate at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).
“There’s a myth that the older worker doesn’t have the capability to work with today’s tools such as social media or (those that are) IT-related and, for the most part, I don’t find that’s true at all — they are just as quick to learn as anybody else… and they are quite willing to learn something new,” said Stoneman.
Another misconception is older workers might cost more in terms of health benefits, said MacEwen.
“You really can’t pre-judge. By the time you’re older, you might have more chronic health conditions like high blood pressure or arthritis… but I think that’s such a small percentage of the cost of employing somebody that it’s more just fear of the unknown. I don’t think it’s a valid concern or a fair concern.”
Hiring older workers has many benefits for employers including more life experience, networks and contacts that cannot come out of book learning, said Eng.
“Life experience brings the ability to think outside the box, which is something that is attributed to older people — they are more likely to pull in different connections, lateral thinking, than younger people — not only drawn from their own experience but, apparently, the older brain works that way.”
Retention rates are also higher among older workers.
“Younger workers are often adding to their resumé whereas older workers are working because they still want to,” said Eng. “They’re somewhat tied to you too because they have too many personal connections in the neighbourhood for them to pick up and leave so there’s good reasons why they’re sticking around.”
The mentorship and guidance older workers provide is a big benefit to Dalhousie, said MacMaster. They often coach younger employees about the technical aspects of the job along with behaviours that are appropriate in the workplace, communication skills and general life skills, she said.
The university also hires older workers because it wants its workforce to be diverse, inclusive and reflect the market it serves — something that gives it a competitive edge, she said.
“The more you reflect your market, the more you can tap into your employee group as a source of knowledge, the more competitive you will be. And the more diverse your employee base, the more diverse your skills base, the more creative and innovative you will be.”
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