"Mr. Fix It": Terry Cole, 63, loves to share his experience as former fitter and turner, electrician and electrical mechanic with his customers at Bunnings Castle Hill
“Mr. Fix It”: Terry Cole, 63, loves to share his experience as former fitter and turner, electrician and electrical mechanic with his customers at Bunnings Castle Hill

In the second part of her series exploring the age discrimination facing mature-age job seekers, Jackie Keast looks at the advantages of hiring older workers. 

Judy Higgins established a niche job board for mature workers, olderworkers.com.au, after her husband Shane spent over two years looking for work. Shane had left his former job at 58 as he was unhappy. He figured he would pick up work quickly. However, during his job search, he found his age was consistently brought up an issue.

“Two years. It was just horrific,” says Judy. “We thought there really had to be a job board for people over the age of 45 or 50, so they could apply for jobs knowing that their age wouldn’t be a disincentive.”

Prior to creating the job board, Judy worked for the Queensland Government on the Experience Pays Awareness Strategy, a program that worked with employers to promote the benefits of older workers.

“We had employers saying ‘well I’ll employ them, but I can’t find them, I don’t know where they are.’ So we thought let’s try to put them together, match them up. So that’s what we’re doing.” she says.

Judy, 63, operates the job board with help from Shane, 67, and their son, Matt. Since its launch just over five years ago, the website has become the fastest growing job board of its kind, with over 21,000 registered job seekers and over 1,500 registered employers. Jobs on the board cover a variety of trades and profession, both full and part-time.

Judy says employers have chosen to advertise with them as they recognise mature workers as loyal, reliable and experienced in dealing with difficult workplace situations.

“We had a large hospitality place ring us one day and say, ‘For goodness sake, can you find us someone who will turn up and won’t have a hangover on a Sunday morning?’,” she says.

After success in Australia, there are plans to launch a New Zealand version of the site later this year. However, despite the growth in business, Judy says there is no doubt age discrimination is alive and well. She says the job seekers who come to them often report frustration with recruitment agencies and young human resources staff.

”They’ve got all these negative thoughts about the skills and energy levels of older people,” she says. “They look across the table during the interview and think ‘well, you’re older than my mother or father, and in some cases, older than my grandparents’.”

Changing employers’ attitudes

Judy says she hasn’t seen an increase in clientele since the introduction of Restart, the Federal Government’s $10,000 wage subsidy for employers who hire workers over 50. She believes the cash is not incentive enough. Instead, she feels the government has to work to change employers’ psyche and allow them to recognise older people are capable and willing to work.

She believes training programs are critical for getting older workers back into the workforce and that the government needs to set up employment agencies that cater specifically for older workers’ needs.

“[Restart] is not going to change anybody’s mind if they aren’t already committed to older workers,” she says. “You could make the retirement age 90. You can pluck a figure out of the air. It won’t matter what age you make it, unless you’ve got employers who are prepared to employ older people.”

In order to help develop a commitment to older workers, Judy’s website has developed a pledge for employers to sign. The pledge states that employers’ will offer the same opportunities for older workers as all other workers through the recruitment, training and retention processes. Several large employers have signed, such as Woolworths, Telstra and BP.

A poster company for hiring over 50s

One major client of olderworkers.com.au is Bunnings, Australia’s largest household hardware chain, who are acknowledged by the Human Rights Commission and seniors’ advocacy groups like National Seniors Australia as a poster company for employers hiring over 50s in Australia.

In February this year, when Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey launched the National Seniors’ Age Management Toolkit, a guideline for hiring older workers, he did so at a Bunnings. Over a third of Bunnings’ workforce is over 50, with some employees even in their 80s.

“Last time I looked, the oldest worker was 83,” says Willem Pruys, Bunnings’ general manager of human resources. “In recent times, I awarded a 10 year service badge to someone who started with us when they were 68.”

Pruys says hiring older workers has been the company’s deliberate recruitment strategy for the last 15 years. “We had lots of training programs, as we still do, to help our team come up to speed with all the information you anticipate a customer might require, but there’s no substitute in terms of trust for someone who’s actually been on the tools and brings years of wisdom along with their knowledge,” he says.

Bunnings’ initial recruitment strategy targeted older tradespeople who still wanted to share their expertise but may have been struggling to keep up with the physical demands of their trade. From there, management soon realised older workers from all backgrounds brought a common sense and maturity to the business.

“We found to our absolute amazement – and to some degree, I’m still a little amazed by it – that we were the only people fishing in a very large pool of talent. For a lot of years, we’ve had it all to ourselves,” says Pruys.

“Having a mechanical knowledge, I can describe to people how to look after their equipment, so I enjoy that,” says Terry Cole, 63, who works in the power gardening section. Terry has been working part-time at Bunnings Castle Hill since February. Terry is a fitter and turner, electrician and electrical mechanic by trade and used to run his own company.

“I have three grandkids. They love coming to Bunnings and are proud that Pop’s working here. My grandson calls me Mr-Fix-It,” he says.

Terry says he was surprised and pleased to see Bunnings hired people of all ages, from uni students, apprentices and the semi-retired. “I’m a young person in some ways, there’s some people here in their 70s! It’s great to see, because out there generally, it can be hard,“ he says.

Daniela Macerola, 51, has also worked at Castle Hill Bunnings for the last three years. “I like the culture here,” she says. “There are a lot of us around the same age group; we get on really well. A lot of us are going through the same stage of life, with kids and everything, so you can relate to each other,” she says.

Prior to Bunnings, Daniela worked in various retail and customer service roles. Despite never working with tools before, she now works as a tool expert. “It’s amazing what you pick up. They say old people don’t pick up things, but that’s rubbish!”

Value of older workers

Pruys says an advantage of hiring experienced workers is that not only do they pass on their knowledge to the customers, but also to their fellow team members. “These people are natural teachers. We don’t have to run as much training, because it just happens informally,” he says.

He believes some other employers are scared to hire older workers due to health risks and higher rates of workplace injury. “We look at that and say, well, the return we get on that investment is so huge, it’s not an issue,” he says.

Bunnings is careful as to where it places older staff to avoid physical wear and tear. Flexible working arrangements also mean staff can work rosters to suit them, so that they can spend time with the grandkids or work other jobs. This flexibility means they often chose to retire later.

“We work fairly hard at encouraging them to stay with us and be flexible in accordance with where they’re at in life,” says Pruys. “A lot will choose to have some form of paid work as part of their lives for as long as they physically can.”

Pruys says that more and more employers will need to look to older workers as the population ages. “It’s going to be a real challenge for businesses to resource their ongoing growth,” he says. “Even though we’re actively involved now in employing the older worker, we’re going to have to get better at it.”

The Age Paradox is a series of articles by AAA journalist Jackie Keast written as part of her Master of Arts (Journalism) at the University of Technology, Sydney.

More from The Age Paradox series on AAA

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