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Hiring older is wiser

By Ann-Maree Moodie

It's time to retire the term "overqualified" and value experience, writes Ann-Maree Moodie.

The workplace has changed. The length of time people decide to stay in work, or whether they return to work, is creating the most diverse workplace demographics of our time. Gen Ys are managing 60-year-olds, Gen X is working from home and global teams are the norm. Anything goes, it seems.

Socio-economic conditions, driven by the so-called two-speed domestic economy, are also being challenged. The ongoing global economic downturn means many people must defer retirement or return to work from retirement to recoup investment losses.

Research from Grattan Institute says the economy can be sufficiently stimulated in the long term only if Australian employers hire more so-called older workers - people aged 45-plus - and encourage more women to join the workforce. The Melbourne-based public-policy think tank also says the federal government should lift the retirement age to 70 if Australia is to build a resilient workforce.

These changes are forcing readjustments in recruitment practices. Notions of who might be a good candidate are being tested and challenged. The perception that someone is overqualified for a role - because of their qualifications and/or their experience - is being reconsidered by employers.

"I think the term overqualified was being used as a euphemism for someone being considered too old for a role," says Nareen Young, the chief executive of the Diversity Council of Australia, the peak body for Australian employers committed to diversity reforms in the workforce. "Or it was used as a code for believing that because someone had a university qualification, they'd be bored in the job.

"But the workplace has changed and organisations need to think outside the old square when it comes to the attraction and retention of staff. Most of our members say there just aren't enough people from the traditional talent pools of men aged 35-50 years."

There are plenty of people in non-traditional labour pools - people who are older, men and women who are returning to work after raising a family, former retirees, and people of all age groups who simply want to work on their own terms.

"Contemporary community views indicate that people want to do lots of different things in their life," Young says. "It may be that someone was a line manager in the past but now he doesn't want that responsibility. People want different things out of work and, as employers, we can no longer afford to make assumptions."

A recruiter specialising in placing older workers in interim management roles, Mal King, says the times are more conducive to employees aged 45-plus because experience is now valued almost as much as qualifications. "In the past, the concept of being overqualified was tantamount to the kiss of death," he says. "The term really meant that the recruiter was concerned the applicant would leave the role as soon as a more suitable, higher-level job was available.

"These days, though, you can hire for a specific requirement. You don't have to settle for a mid-level accountant when a more experienced CFO or financial controller is available on a flexible basis, say for two to three days a week.

"The so-called overqualified manager will have past experience of similar challenges to the ones they are about to face. And as they are unencumbered by any previous involvement in company processes or staff relationships, interim executives can also provide a fresh perspective and are free to concentrate on what's best for the business."

The booming resources industry is one area where being overqualified or older has fewer barriers than in other sectors of the economy. "One of the reasons that the older person is attractive to the resources sectors is that they will have had experience in delivering major projects or expansions," the managing director of executive search company Russell Reynolds Associates, Craig Mahony, says.

"Often mining is seen as a young man's game because of the nature of the work and its geographical location, often in remote parts of regional Australia. But at the more senior management levels, companies are looking for people with a lot of experience - a few battle scars, as it were. So, unlike some other parts of the employment sector, where being aged more than 45 can be detrimental, the resources industry can be less discriminatory because it values depth of experience."

A Portland State University study parallels the Australian experience about hiring older workers. "The assumption is that the person will be bored and not motivated, not that they will underperform or leave," the author of the study, Professor Berrin Erdogan, told the Harvard Business Review blog.

Ann-Maree Moodie is the managing director of The Boardroom Consulting Group. She blogs at

Published: 08 September 2012

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