Australian employers warned they can’t afford to ignore older workers amid skills shortage

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Diane Roberts has been looking for work for the past seven years and believes age is her biggest hurdle. 

"It [ageism] actually starts at the job description," she said. 

The 65-year-old from Geelong returned to Australia in her 50s after working in local government in the UK for 30 years.

She has been firing off applications for about 15 jobs a week during a nationwide worker shortage, and calls are getting louder for a shift in the ongoing bias against older jobseekers.

Employers are being warned they can no longer afford to ignore the untapped talent pool, and workplace experts say they need to provide flexible conditions that suit workers well into their 70s.

The plea comes as figures show tens of thousands of over-55s who would like to be working are unemployed.

Excluded from the get-go

Ms Roberts said ageism is entrenched in Australia.

"The attitude towards older people in Australia is quite poor," she said.

"It's a youth culture. And I think it's very sad that that has happened.

"It's such a shock to come back to Australia really and realise how far behind we are.

"I've been applying or looking for jobs within government that are part-time, and I can say that I looked today on SEEK at how many jobs there were in this area for part-time workers.

"Three … as opposed to 260 full-time. I think that's a very ageist concept."

Ms Roberts said like many people her age, while she would physically struggle to work full-time, she would make a good part-time worker.

Forced onto unemployment benefits

Instead, she was struggling to live on the JobSeeker allowance and had moved in with a friend of a similar age so they could share the cost of rent.

Having worked as a manager in health and social care within local government, she was well credentialed but said her UK qualifications were not recognised in her home country.

She went back to study last year, graduating in June with a high distinction in a diploma in justice. But even that, so far, has not been enough to secure her a job.

Recently, she thought she had found the perfect position working in a prison as a tutor, only to find out her education qualification needed to be upgraded.

"It's more time, it's more money and by the time I've got that, the job has gone," she said.

Ms Roberts ended up doing volunteer work for three years because she was told it would enhance her resume.

But that experience, though valuable, had not resulted in a paid position.

Tide is turning, says recruiter

Ms Roberts's story is far from unusual. She is part of a cohort of mature, skilled Australians who find themselves lucky to get an interview, let alone an actual job.

Chris Kent of recruiting firm Hays said the tide was turning, with progressive employers proactively hiring mature workers to support and mentor their less experienced staff.

But he said bias across a range of demographics, including mature workers and people with disabilities, still needed to be addressed on a broader scale.

"The simple fact is that we are going to live a lot longer than the retirement age," he said.

"We need to embrace that people are going to be in the workforce well into their 70s and 80s.

"So, if we are starting to discriminate in their 50s, then we are really turning our backs on a lot of talent."

Employers should offer 'flexible' working conditions

While there was a push to try speed up the return of international workers to deal with the current labour shortages, recent figures showed mature job-seekers were being left on the sidelines.

In May 2022 there was an estimated 171,600 Australians aged 55-64 who were unemployed but would prefer to be working if the conditions were right.

Of that number, nearly half (43.1 per cent) were skilled and a fifth (20.2 per cent) had degrees.

The figures came from the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre and were based on labour force estimates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

To attract older workers, Mr Kent said employers should offer suitable working conditions.

"So more flexibility, but embedded post-COVID, not as a snap change to a pandemic," he said.

"What COVID has shown us is that maybe you don't always have to be in the office, maybe we can accommodate different people's duties outside of work, like caring duties."

'Unfounded' stereotypes behind discrimination

One of the big concerns for Tim Bentley, who heads up the Centre for Work and Wellbeing at Edith Cowan University, was the possibility that some employers may be using ageist stereotypes to guide their decisions.

Professor Bentley said plenty of research had found the stereotypes to be unfounded and now was the time to finally stamp out ageism in the workforce.

"It doesn't have a place in the 21st century workforce," he said.

"Up until now, in many ways we have let it slide.

"They [older workers] need to be given the same opportunities as other workers because they are often overlooked for training and development and for promotion.

"Age discrimination is a scourge. It does affect the health and wellbeing of older workers but it also affects organisations' prosperity."

Older Australians should not 'punish themselves'

At 60 with no plans to retire, Professor Bentley urged older workers not to "punish themselves" by quitting their job early due to ageism at work and instead approach their manager if they are being mistreated. 

Over the past eight years, businesses have actually been paid to hire older workers under a federal wage subsidy scheme called Restart.

More than 40,000 businesses have been supported to hire workers aged over 50 with subsidies of up to $10,000, with nearly 6,500 older workers finding jobs under the program last financial year.

Professor Bentley said although only 15 per cent of people aged over 65 were still working today, it was twice as many as 20 years ago. 

The trend would continue with the ageing population and he advocates for organisations and businesses to roll out age awareness training for managers.

Recruitment industry also has to evolve

Chris Kent said everything from advertising to interviews needed to adapt.

"Sometimes our advertising and our methods of going to market looking for talent have been skewed by the search for new talent," he said.

"We really need to think about how we're attracting older workers into the talent pool as well.

"There was a rush for all sorts of algorithmic tools and things to assess candidate applications and they still serve a very good purpose but it's really important that we don't let those cull people out of the hiring process that would make excellent employees.

"So, what the recruitment industry is doing is making sure that face-to-face interaction of interviewing and vetting candidates is still occurring whenever possible.

"This is a market for everybody, regardless of your age, there are unprecedented gaps in skills."

Mr Kent advised job seekers to have up-to-date resumes focusing on experience that was relevant to the position they were applying for, instead of providing a long document that lists irrelevant roles.

They should also have an online presence on sites like LinkedIn, where he said job networking was predominantly happening.

A Mature Age Hub has been set up by the federal government to boost employment of older Australians, which includes a toolkit employers can use to test their treatment of mature-age workers.

(Original ABC Article)