How Older Candidates Can
How Older Candidates Can Increase Their Employability
By Barbara Moses
Age discrimination is a recognized and tragic consequence of the New Economy. I hear daily from people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who, because of their age, feel stuck in hated jobs or can’t find work.
Statistics support their stories. Executives over age 50 take twice as long to find new positions as those between 35 and 39, reports David Opton, chief executive officer of ExecuNet, an executive career-networking group in Norwalk, Conn., citing a survey of ExecuNet members.
One 54-year-old executive from the information-technology industry has been struggling to find a new role for nearly three years. He has no more savings, his marriage is on the rocks, and he’s been forced to do what he once thought was unthinkable — tell his college-age kids they’ll have to pay for their own education.
Although much younger, a 39-year-old teacher also feels the consequences of age discrimination. She hates her job so much that the thought of going to work makes her feel ill. Although she has funds to tide her over during a job hunt, she won’t consider quitting because she’s worried she’s too old to find something else.
Betrayed and Mistreated
The work world is tough, even brutal, and many laid off older employees feel betrayed and mistreated by organizations they once trusted. These companies often replace them with younger people under the guise of “the need to appeal to young consumers” or the particularly stupid-sounding “ability to think out of the box.”
One executive recruiter says that if hiring managers were honest, they’d tell you, “I can get two managers for the price of one. Plus, younger employees don’t have any baggage, they’re more easily influenced, and they’re technically more current.”
Ironically, discriminatory hiring and firing continues even as organizations lament the looming talent shortage. Age discrimination contributes to talent deficits, even though few employers seem to grasp the connection or care about it.
Launch a Counterattack
The good news is that the job market is improving. While there are no magic bullets, older workers can take a number of measures to counteract age bias and increase their employability. These include turning some weaknesses in the current work force — namely the lack of developed management talent and emerging skills shortages — to their advantage. Here are some tactics to help older job seekers find work:
- Drill down.
For people of all ages and levels, the biggest obstacle to making a career transition is a lack of self-knowledge. Professionals who want to shift gears or find new jobs often tell me, “I don’t need to do a self-assessment because I know who I am.” They say they completed assessments during outplacement counseling, management-development training or by taking formal psychological tests.
But when I ask them, “What are your unique strengths?” “What types of environments do you shine or fail in?” or “What three things do you most need in your work to be happy?” they lack answers or give cookie-cutter responses (“I’m good with people”). Without self-knowledge, it’s “game over” in your job search.
On a personal level, conducting a self-assessment can help you answer such questions as, “What work will give me a sense of purpose?” and “Where would I fit best?” On a practical level, it enables you to set meaningful and achievable goals, articulate your unique strengths and present yourself to employers in a compelling way in your resumes and cover letters or during interviews.
- Think beyond job titles.
Most people define their career identity by their job or professional title, such as “certified public accountant” or “manager of automotive-parts marketing.” This limits their career options. If they thought in terms of settings where they could apply their skills and attributes, their opportunities would widen.
Consider these statements:
“I am a human-resource manager in the information-technology sector.”
“I understand the needs of today’s workers and can develop effective strategies to attract and retain them. I can quickly establish trust with people at all organizational levels; I am skilled in recruitment; and I can adjust to quickly changing business needs. Currently, I’m applying my expertise in the IT sector.”
Which offers more value to an employer and creates the most career options?
- Think career shift, not change.
Some experts predict that professionals will have five to seven different careers throughout their work lives. This implies that they’ll be like the pop singer Madonna and reinvent themselves completely for each career move.
In truth, people don’t really re-invent themselves. For instance, it’s rare for, say, a lawyer to become a make-up artist, then a pilot and flying instructor. Everyone has certain strengths and personality attributes, which may be modified by life experiences. However, our psyches can’t be re-invented. Moreover, it’s expensive to make a significant career change. It often involves more education and the arduous job of selling yourself to employers who don’t credit your past experience as a “seasoned” professional.
So consider a more methodical way of making a career change, such as examining “shadow” careers — professions that use similar skills reconfigured in new ways. We tend to be attracted to certain kinds of work. When career malaise occurs, the problem is usually where we’re working and how, not the skills required. Think about a nurse who wants to nurture people but now scurries between patients without making meaningful contact, or a teacher who wants to make a difference in children’s lives but doesn’t like the large classes resulting from recent cutbacks. The nurse might become a pharmaceutical sales representative, massage therapist, life-insurance agent or health coach, while the teacher might reconfigure her skills to become an educational sales rep, management trainer, curriculum designer or tutor.
- Network broadly with people at all levels.
Many older job seekers try to network exclusively with higher-ups and avoid the more junior ranks. Don’t confuse a person’s corporate level with the ability to be helpful. In fact, unless you’re seeking a senior-level job, you may be hurting your cause by pitching yourself just to top executives. They’ll send you to the hiring managers, who may resent the referral.
Another error is to network only with peers in your industry. This leads to lots of unemployed people schmoozing among themselves.
That’s why joining networking organizations that cater to mid- and late-career professionals is a good idea. You’ll learn of opportunities in a wide range of fields because their memberships are so diverse.
- Sell yourself based on deficiencies in the current workplace.
In the massive job cuts of the past decade, experienced management talent has been let go, leaving younger employees who haven’t received the managerial training companies once offered. Due to broader spans of control in today’s flatter organizations, these young managers don’t always receive support from their beleaguered bosses. Try using the following three ways to turn this situation to your benefit:
- Present yourself as a mentor. Many organizations appreciate older employees’ work ethics, mentoring abilities and stabilizing influence on younger staff members. Show how you’d welcome a chance to help develop younger workers, including younger bosses.
- Emphasize strengths associated with wisdom and experience. Seek out organizations that need your expertise and know-how. Often these are smaller companies that can benefit from experience. Although high-tech companies often shun older candidates, at two of my client companies, where most employees are in their early 30s, a 60-year-old has been hired precisely because he “has been there.”
- Skirt the head count. Seek contract work. You’ll avoid restrictions on hiring full timers, get your foot in the door and demonstrate your potential. Similarly, taking a part-time position is another way to make inroads, while allowing you to pursue volunteer interests or build a “portfolio” career. (What’s a portfolio career? It’s an assortment of part-time gigs that make use of your different skills.) It can be attractive to hear job applicants say, as one senior manager did, “My experience can be leveraged to help you accomplish more in less time.”
- Get to the point quickly.
It’s natural to want to share your experience, but don’t tell old war stories (“This reminds me of a time in 1982 when we had to…”). Be aware of how you communicate, and make your point quickly. Says a senior recruiter with a New York City-based search firm, “I’m embarrassed to say it, but older workers have a different pace to their words. They’re slower and more reflective, so they sound ponderous and inflexible.”
- Identify why you want to work.
Does your income bolster your self-esteem? Ask yourself, “Am I continuing to work out of financial necessity or primarily for psychological reasons?” Determine how much money you really need. Review your personal values and what you really care about now. Does your current lifestyle satisfy you or tie you down? Many older professionals realize the size of their house or where they vacation doesn’t fulfill them emotionally and intellectually. They can then consider more fulfilling, if less lucrative, work possibilities that help them to stay engaged with the world.
- Think multiple-income streams.
If you need to earn income, consider generating it from several options, since you may not be able to earn enough from a single source. This may mean, for example, owning vending machines, consulting and teaching at a local college.
A Benefit to Us All
Times may be tough now for older job seekers, but their long-term prospects are improving. Organizations face skills shortages that will worsen as baby boomers retire. To cope, they’ll likely ask older employees to stay past traditional retirement age. This can only benefit society as a whole since it will stem a profound loss of knowledge, maturity and experience.
Gary Perman is President of Perman Technical Search Group, a national search firm that specializes in recruiting Executives to Engineers in the technology industry since 1996.
If you have questions about this article, feel free to contact him at [email protected]
— Dr. Moses is the author of “What Next? The Complete Guide to Taking Control of Your Working Life” (DK Publishing, 2003). She is the president of BBM Human Resource Consultants Inc., an international career-management-consulting firm headquartered in Toronto.
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