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Embracing our older workforce

"Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80." Henry Ford

Whether you are in the spring or autumn of your working life, the opportunity to either learn from experienced staff, or pass on hard-won business acumen to younger hands may become what makes or breaks your enterprise.

With declining birthrates in the majority of developed countries, and rising skills shortages across most professions, the importance of holding on to experienced professionals has emerged as a key business strategy.

In the UK, organisations are now responding to recruitment difficulties and new age regulations by adapting their recruitment and retention policies and actively targeting older workers.

According to a recent survey undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, 70% of employers are actively seeking to recruit people aged between 55 and pension age, while 31% of organisations are seeking to recruit people already entitled to the state pension.

But why employ older workers? The answer is simple: our workforce (like the UK’s) is maturing. According to Statistics New Zealand, half of the total labour force will be aged 42 or older in 2012, compared with a median age of 39 in 2001 and 36 in 1991. Furthermore, the labour force aged 65 years and over is expected to increase from 61,000 in 2006 to 102,000 in 2021.

The ageing labour force, attributed in part to falling birth rates and longer life expectancy, will have a major impact on employers’ recruitment practices. Without appropriate strategies in place, business will continue to be dogged by skills shortages and talent gaps.

From recent New Zealand studies, most notably the Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) Trust’s 2006 Work and Age Survey, the main perceived strength of older people in the workplace was their reliability.

Although younger people were less likely to agree that older people have technology skills, more than half of all age groups surveyed strongly agreed that older workers were reliable.

The EEO survey results found current older workers would be encouraged to remain in their jobs by: quality part-time work (66%) and flexible working hours (64%).

Just over half (53%) said they would stay in paid work longer if they could take extended leave and return to work. Higher pay (42%) and being able to work from home (47%) were also chosen by just under half of the working respondents. The main differences by gender were that men were more encouraged by contract or casual work, and women more by job sharing, part-time work, flexibility, higher pay, and the ability to take extended leave and then return to their job.

There were no real differences by age. So whatever the realities are in your workplace, it is clear that knowledge, experience and a few ounces of common sense can flow both ways between the workforce age streams.

If an employer wishes to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce, including part-time workers or the mature age population, it will need to ensure the right policies and practices are in place to accommodate these workers.

A good start would be to complete an age profile of your workforce. Knowing the mean age of your staff will enable you to better plan for changing demographic realities of the labour market.

Beverley Main is the chief executive of the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand (HRINZ). For details visit: