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Accommodating older workers ‘not hard, just different’

Kim Seeling Smith

We are living longer, healthier lives and many of us want to work past 65. And businesses will increasingly be reliant on older workers to fill job vacancies, writes workplace adviser Kim Seeling Smith.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg used a recent speech to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia to argue that our economy can’t support our rapidly ageing population and that we need to undertake training to keep in touch with the jobs market.

Unfortunately, that opportunity isn’t open to everyone, because ageism is alive and well in Australia.

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The reasons companies cite (if they cite any) is that they are afraid the over-65s won’t keep up with the pace of change, they will miss work due to injury or illness, they won’t be able to learn as quickly, they won’t be as productive as the young guns and some are even afraid of potential conflicts between generations.

The real reasons more companies don’t look at older workers are much simpler. They are just not used to doing this and it takes time, money and resources to retrain or re-skill.

Those costs retraining are more obvious and appear weightier than the cost of replacing someone whose skills have become redundant due to technology, innovation or a change in the company structure or market environment. In fact, the opposite is true. It can be much more cost-effective to retrain than to rehire.

The paradigm we’ve operated under for centuries is that careers follow a fairly linear trajectory and that people work until retirement, then they stop. But that way of thinking must shift if businesses are going to survive the next decade. Korn Ferry estimates that there will be 739,000 more Australian jobs than candidates by the end of 2020 and 2.2 million by 2030.

Smart businesses are now doing several things to ensure they have enough of the right people on board to kick their goals.

First, they are moving beyond skills and experience and hiring for strengths or innate abilities — then training for the required skills. For example, instead of looking for a receptionist with X number of years working the front desk of a similar company, they are now looking for people from a broad range of backgrounds who have the requisite strengths of being customer-focused, able to juggle multiple priorities and who are detail-oriented.

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Second, they are mapping out non-linear career paths and redeploying and re-skilling existing staff into other roles based on these strengths or innate abilities.

Third, they are looking at non-traditional candidates to fill open roles, such as those who have retired or semi-retired.

Case in point, global engineering consultancy GHD offers a career relaunch program to anyone who has been out of the workforce for some time, including retirees. They interview for the program and initially start successful candidates on a 10-week flexible contract. Participants are financially supported while they are on the program, and everyone is offered full or part-time employment after they’ve finished, if they choose to stay on.

Many businesses that have recognised the value of older workers mention that they have a strong work ethic, valuable work and life experience that can be utilised in sometimes surprising ways, and that they can be great mentors to the younger staff members.

So, how do you begin to put measures in place to accommodate older workers into your business?

  1. Identify your current open roles and those you expect to hire for in the next 18 months.
  2. Forget about duties and responsibilities for these roles. Determine the five or fewer outcomes that the people will need to achieve to be successful.
  3. Ask yourself, what strengths or innate abilities are required to successfully achieve these outcomes?
  4. Look at your existing staff (especially those who are about to retire or whose roles are going to be changing) and ask yourself who has the strengths you will require in the new roles.
  5. Identify the training required to re-skill these existing employees, and determine how that training can be delivered and at what cost.
  6. Compare the cost of retraining existing staff with hiring from the outside (using 75–200 per cent of an existing employee’s annual salary as the benchmark).
  7. If you do need to hire from the outside, ask yourself what other positions or industries hire people with these same strengths you require — then look for those.

This isn’t hard — it just requires a different way of thinking, and organisations that embrace this new paradigm, first, will win.

Kim Seeling Smith is the CEO of workplace advisory firm Ignite Global.

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