A few years ago Jenni Coustley and her colleague, Peter Rowan, 55, both of whom have worked for National Australia Bank since leaving school, went to a pilot session of the bank’s My Future program — an initiative aimed at getting valued mature-age employees to hang in, rather than retire.
Driving home from the session in Melbourne, Rowan and Coustley eagerly hatched a plan. What if each alternately took every second Thursday and Friday off? “We had to put the proposal to the bank and we were told we needed the agreement of both the business unit and our customers,” recalls Coustley, who soon discovered her customers were almost as keen as she was.
In the next 40 years the number of people aged over 65 will double. By 2020, about 85 per cent of labour-market growth is expected to come from workers aged over 45. With skills shortages well reported across Australian industries, policymakers are pulling economic levers in earnest.
Educating employers on the crucial reasons for keeping older workers in tow, including the threat of a significant loss of knowledge and productivity, appears to be gaining traction. Professor Phillip Taylor of Melbourne’s Monash University, who has been studying the ageing workforce for about 25 years, is cautiously optimistic.
With 29 per cent of its 7000-plus staff older than 55 and 31 per cent aged between 45 and 55 years, the authority introduced My Journey workshops for older employees to explore knowledge continuity and flexible work options. Likewise, VicRoads has estimated that 60 per cent of its workforce will be 40 and over by 2016, increasing to 91 per cent by 2026.
The big picture
The focus, to date, predominantly has been on retaining mature-age workers within an existing workforce. Retention became a pressing issue for NAB when statistical analysis revealed that the average 55-year-old employee had 15 years tenure, which equates to a high level of intellectual property, ongoing customer relationships and experience in managing the business.
Data analysis from the My Future program shows around 90 per cent will work for the bank for longer if they have increased flexibility. Consequently, it has zeroed in on helping people understand options from job-sharing to reduced hours or responsibilities. A clause in NAB’s enterprise agreement enables employees to freeze their entitlements so they are not financially disadvantaged if they transition to a less responsible role.
In addressing the mature-age-worker big picture, retention – “holding on to those whose skills are known and recognised”, as Wilson puts it – is the low-hanging fruit. While an increasing number of employers are now willing to consider older workers and are keen to capture knowledge from those on the cusp of retiring, they are not interested in training them, observes Taylor.
Hiring is where age discrimination still raises its ugly head, according to Taylor, (although he notes that surprisingly in some sectors interest in encouraging older people to retire as a means of pruning a workforce remains). Preconceptions over health issues and frequently erroneous ideas about dwindling abilities mean older workers are often considered more risky as new recruits.
In the AHRI research more than a third of respondents believed their organisation was biased against the employment of older workers. However, Wilson predicts this will change as minds are opened by the positive experience from retention activities showing what older people can do.
Megan Lilly, director of education and training of Ai Group, which is working on the Corporate Champions project and developed the government’s Investing in Experience toolkit, agrees. She’s seen positive examples unfold. Her team recently worked with a call centre bedevilled by high staff turnover to rebalance the demographic of its workforce with more older workers – there’s evidence they have lower rates of absenteeism and greater loyalty.
Smaller employers may have an advantage in starting the conversation with employees. But she warns that lack of forethought can cost. “For instance, in a manufacturing context, there may be just a few people with critical tacit knowledge about a production process, and that can be difficult to accumulate again.
The DIY approach
Willem Pruys, general manager of HR for Bunnings — where a third of the 30,000-plus workforce is over 50 — says the hardware giant has never had a specific strategy for hiring mature-age workers. Not long after the company introduced the warehouse concept, about 17 years ago, management considered its face-to-face interactions with customers and determined that the salesperson’s know-how and credibility were vital.
“We have a workplace culture that transcends generational groups,” says Pruys. Having a mixed workforce with a large proportion of older workers is seen as normal. And from this, good things happened organically, he reports.