What's happening on the employment front for older workers? Chris Palmer from Convergence Partners explains...

Chris Palmer

The employment lifeline for older workers is often a shift to a contract or interim role. Experience is worth hanging onto, so if organisations want to tap into this skilled workforce, Chris Palmer explains that they need to modify their thinking.

Employers looking to hire people these days face two distinct pools of talent - the large Baby Boomer bubble of people born between the 1940s and the 1960s, and a younger generation. The former are now moving along the timeline into the retirement zone, with a noticeable effect on employment trends.

As more people want to work up to and, increasingly, past retirement age, employers can now choose from these very different pools of people for the same positions: highly experienced workers in the twilight of their careers, and a younger generation keen to learn and grow theirs.

Many Baby Boomers were laid off in the global financial crisis and talk of ageist hiring practices was rife in its aftermath. These Boomers often struck the stigma of being ‘over-experienced’ as they applied for roles less senior than their previous ones.

But what’s really happening in that space, and how should those entering the last years of their official working life - as well as employers considering them for roles - approach the issues?

Older workers do struggle to return to full time permanent employment once they’ve been dislodged from it, or have taken time out. But that’s not necessarily ageism.

HR practices are often looking to employ people on succession plans, slotting them in at the early-to-middle zone of a career cycle. Many older people thus get overlooked. And there are a lot fewer senior positions as management structures flatten or roles head offshore following restructuring.

Most older workers still in full time roles are happy to work one to two years past retirement age - it may be a financial necessity for them too - but their number one priority is flexibility, of hours and location. Few senior positions get advertised as part-time or with flexible hours, though; that’s usually a sign the employer wishes to hire or retain a certain person.

Employers are increasingly recognising, however, that experience is worth hanging onto. The employment lifeline for the older worker is often in a shift into more of a contract, casual or interim role.

There is a huge latent pool of talent around for those sorts of roles; and the roles never disappear. In fact, there’s now a shortage of skills in certain areas, partly because Kiwis are quite transient, heading off for OE or more lucrative jobs offshore, a trend offset to some extent by migrants and Kiwis coming back.

But there are certainly options for our older workers in a number of areas and roles, mainly specialised, middle-management positions.

Time to modify thinking

Companies could easily tap into this skilled Boomer workforce, but they need to modify their thinking. Some Boomers are very senior managers looking at the type of roles they once held - for example, a chief financial officer looking at a senior accounting position. For them, it’s no longer about money and advancement, but about flexibility and staying in the workforce.

Understandably, employers need to prepare people to rise in the organisation, but they can still have an older cohort on the payroll. Older employees can bring stability and leadership, and issues management skills
and experience, plus plenty of knowledge to impart - something that’s not always simple to import.

The interim option

The ageing workforce can also meet a growing need for interim talent. Technology has had a big impact on business models leading to increased demand for contractors to help with projects. Many Boomers are freelancers and private consultants supporting multiple organisations - increasingly small-to-medium
enterprises (SMEs) - across a range of disciplines, from HR and finance to supply chain and corporate governance.

It’s a mix of flexibility and variety, and there are part-time options aplenty.

Flexible Boomers can move into a long-term but part-time role or one that’s full time and short duration - every time there’s a project or a short-term need.

It’s also a cost-effective approach; these workers offer huge value for money. They have a large skillset but are
pretty accommodating around their charge-out rate; for them, it’s often around flexibility and staying in the workforce - not maximising their earnings.

Older workers can struggle with new technology, however, and some haven’t kept up-to-speed with fundamental software skills, like Excel or PowerPoint.

Employers also need to assess how comfortable the existing team or line manager is about working with someone who may be much more experienced than they are. You need to prepare them to be accepting.

Similarly, the new Boomer employee needs to fully understand the parameters of the role - so they don’t overshoot it - and their goals. Experienced people often gravitate toward tasks outside their position description because that work comes naturally for them. This can be positive or disruptive, depending on the flexibility in the brief.

But for the engaging organisation, a senior person can be a very rewarding recruitment choice. If you fully
understand the person’s skills and experience and have a strategy for maximising their use, bringing as much value out of the person as you can, the organisation can benefit greatly.

The worker, in turn, should watch for areas outside the standing brief where they could add value - and pitch the possibilities and benefits to management. Those contractors tend to stay around.


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