Career Watch: A new perspective on older workers

Q&A: Steve Watson

The managing director of the Dallas office of executive search firm Stanton Chase International discusses changes in prospects for older workers.

As the U.S. looks to address its fiscal challenges, how likely is it that we will see an increase in the retirement age? I personally believe it will be increased for various entitlement programs, with grandfather clauses for those close to retirement age.

Many older IT workers who have lost their jobs say companies favor hiring younger IT workers. If the retirement age is pushed back to 70 or more, will these people just spend more years underemployed? I am seeing an openness on the part of employers to look at more experienced people (those in their late 50s and early 60s) who demonstrate energy and a willingness to travel and do what it takes to get the job done. I think more experienced people have better opportunities today than they did 10 or 15 years ago, thanks to the demand for experience, leadership and good management skills. One client recently told me he had interviewed a candidate who was in his early 70s.

What accounts for this change? Companies tend to hire younger to get a return on investment. A younger person might be able to contribute for 10 to 15 years, be part of succession planning and add bench strength. Nonetheless, companies today are recognizing that if they can get five to 10 years of good performance, then the investment is good. This is different thinking than 15 or more years ago, when companies were really looking for more long-term commitment. But they accept the reality that people today move on more quickly than they did in the past, especially the younger generation.

Among employers, there's a new emphasis on developing better retention vehicles and a culture that offers work/life balance and a more purposeful life through things like giving back, pursuing green initiatives and conservation, and promoting community service. But sometimes a company has a pressing need that can best be addressed by hiring a more experienced person. The company may need someone who can quickly grow revenue, enter new markets, take a new product to market, expand globally, develop and lead a young team, implement a new system, integrate a new business, or leverage new technology, and may feel that only someone with a wealth of experience can deliver what is needed. The company may also want the experienced hire to mentor and develop a successor.

An example from my practice is a start-up business that is looking for a vice president of sales and is seriously looking at an experienced candidate whose age is around 60 and who has industry contacts, knows the distribution channels and can build a high-performing team quickly. The client's interest in the more experienced candidate is to get revenue, new customers and a team quickly.

More Older Americans Are Working

Year

Labor participation rate

of workers 55 and older
1975 34.6%
1993 29.4%
2010 40.2%
Source: The Employee Benefit Research Institute's analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau's data on labor-force participation

The percentage of Americans age 55 or older who are in the labor force has been on the rise since 1993 and in 2010 exceeded the percentage recorded in 1975. For older workers who haven't reached retirement age, the higher rate of labor participation can be attributed to an increase the number of women in the workforce. But the percentages of both men and women in the workforce who are 65 or older has grown. Education level has a strong correlation with a higher labor-participation rate.

Where the Jobs Are: Healthcare

As hospitals gear up for full implementation of electronic health record systems, they are facing a significant shortage of qualified IT personnel. Accenture conducted a study on EHR implementation and concluded that the push for electronic records will require one full-time healthcare IT worker for every five hospital beds. That translates into a need for roughly 155,000 full-time healthcare IT workers in the U.S., which is some 45,000 more than the current number of IT professionals in healthcare, according to a Gartner estimate.

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