Employers are getting smarter about hiring older workers

James Reed and Robert Burn work in the supply department at Silvercup Studios, moving and loading lighting and equipment.

James Reed and Robert Burn work in the supply department at Silvercup Studios, moving and loading lighting and equipment.

Employers tend to get a bad rap —  often deservedly — for their attitudes about hiring, retaining and nurturing workers over 50. Frequently, older workers and older job applicants are perceived as lethargic, expensive and behind the times. So let me tell you about some employers who see things very differently: the winners and finalists of the 2017 Age Smart Employer Awards.

The Age Smart Employer Award program, now in its third year, is a project of Columbia University’s Columbia Aging Center at the Mailman School of Public Health. The awards, given to New York City-based businesses and nonprofits of any size, are a “culture change initiative,” says director Ruth Finkelstein, who is also a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging.

“We do them to call attention to the concrete and specific policies and practices that employers can use, and are using, to recruit, engage and retrain workforces of all ages, including older workers,” Finkelstein said.

I was fortunate to be on the selection committee for this year’s honorees and attended yesterday’s inspiring ceremony in New York City’s fabled Rainbow Room where the awards were given out. (Next Avenue blogger and author Kerry Hannon gave the keynote speech.)

Significance of the Age Smart Employer awards

“We’ve increased our life expectancy by 50% in the last 100 years. That’s astounding and an immense achievement to be proud of. Now we have to design society for longer lives, and these awards, I think, are a linchpin of that,” said Dr. Linda Fried, dean of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging.

A hundred firms and nonprofits entered the 2017 competition, double the number in 2016, which was 2½ times the number of the year before. The breadth of applicants expanded, too.

The growth in the number and type of entrants is partly because more employers know about the awards and because more are adopting age-smart practices, Finkelstein said. “While the finalists and winners every year have been superlative, this year the overall quality of applicants was higher,” she noted. “It wasn’t just the biggest crop ever, it was the best.”

Gary Kesner, executive vice president for Silvercup Studios (one of this year’s Age Smart Employer Award winners) offered a terrific quote at the ceremony: “As a mature worker myself, I can only echo Ingrid Bergman, who said: ‘Getting old is like climbing a mountain; you get a little out of breath, but the view is much better!’”

The seven 2017 Age Smart Employer Award finalists were The Bronx Zoo, Diller-Quaile School of Music, Educational Alliance (a social service agency), Sew Right, Steinway & Sons, Veselka (a Ukrainian diner) and WithumSmith + Brown (an accounting firm).

Related: Jobs are everywhere, just not for people over 55

At WithumSmith + Brown, everyone has a mentor. “That’s near and dear to my heart,” said Theresa Richardson, chief talent officer and a partner at the firm. The coaches and mentees there are required to meet three times a year. “The more often you meet to revisit goals, the greater the chance of achieving the goals,” said Richardson.

Here are thumbnail sketches about the six Age Smart Employer Award winners:

The 2017 Age Smart Employer award winners

National Grid: This utility company likes recruiting experienced workers from its competitors and invites retirees to come back part-time — to train employees and to help out during emergencies. Said Ed Hayes, National Grid’s U.S. vice president for talent acquisition. “People talk about the aging workforce. We just call them our workforce.”

Urban Health Plan: A nonprofit health care provider, Urban Health Plan makes a point of bringing on, keeping and caring for its older employees. “You hire community members in their 50s, 60s and 70s, but you don’t just hire them,” said Finkelstein. “You set them up for success with intensive and ongoing training and mentoring.”

PKF O’Connor Davies: While large accounting firms frequently force partners to retire around age 60 (“the accounting industry is not world famous for age-smart practices,” joked Finkelstein) this one not only doesn’t — it hires them. “We bring people into our organization who may be ‘aged out’ in other organizations,” said Kevin Keane, managing partner at PKF O’Connor Davies, which has 742 employees. Those employees then mentor younger ones.

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“It’s not an age thing; we just want quality, talented people,” said Keane. “Yesterday, I was talking to a partner who is 82 and still working seven days a week. I keep telling him he should have a flexible schedule [working fewer hours and days], but that’s what he wants.” Keane added: “If I were at a Big Four accounting firm, I’d be aged out today. So I like the policy of not being aged out.”

Riverdale Country School: This Bronx-based private K-12 school is intentional about retaining teachers and staff. It offers faculty sabbaticals after 10 years, “passion grants” that let workers pursue their interests (from learning tango to writing fiction) and the ability to restructure jobs for less-strenuous ones (custodians have become security guards, for example). Said Dominic Randolph, head of the school: “I and our team have the amazing privilege of working with people ages 4 to 92.” He’s especially proud of the passion grant program: “It’s great to see our community engaged at all ages and continuing to keep on learning throughout their lifetime. You have to keep reinventing yourself. These people do that every day and the kids are inspired by that.”

Lee Spring: You might not think a spring manufacturer with 79 employees would be age smart, but then you don’t know Lee Spring, based in the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Half its workforce is over 50 (some execs started as factory laborers and its president began as a machinist 30 year ago). The Age Smart Employer Awards selection committee was also taken by the company’s “impressive culture and ethos of flexibility,” said Finkelstein. Some employees have been allowed to move to facilities in warmer climates or work fewer hours. Fun fact: the six Lee Spring employees who came to the awards ceremony had a total of 161 years of work experience.

Silvercup Studios: If the accounting profession isn’t known for being age smart, that’s doubly true for the entertainment industry. But Silvercup Studios, New York City’s largest full-service film and TV production facility and where Sopranos, Girls and Sex and the City have filmed, is an exception. At this family-owned company, the median age of its 49 employees is over 50. Two just celebrated their 30th anniversary with Silvercup.

“We don’t look at someone’s age when we hire them because it doesn’t matter. We’re looking for people who can do the job,” Kesner, 67, told me.

Also read: This is the state with the oldest workers

Being age smart is just being business smart, said Kesner: “We try to encourage loyalty to our company. It’s good for our business. It costs more to recruit and replace employees than to retain them.” Also, he added, older employees “are not necessarily looking to move up and out,” have low absenteeism rates and “have a maturity in handling problems; they don’t get as rattled.”

He closed the ceremony with these words: “I look forward to a day when awards of this kind are no longer necessary, when ageism in the workplace is a thing of the past and hiring mature workers is second nature to all employers.”

That’s an admirable wish. But I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more Age Smart Employer Awards for quite a few years ahead.

Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of “How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis” and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. @richeis315

Job Search Strategies for Older Workers

I'm always a little surprised at how young can be considered old by employers. In some industries, especially high-tech, even mid-thirties can be considered old. In fact, I spoke to one computer programmer who described the workers in his office who were over thirty as “old.” Unfortunately for older job seekers, the older you are, the longer it can take to get a job and the harder it can be to get hired.

What can you do to address age discrimination and promote your candidacy for employment? There are strategies older job seekers can implement to help expedite a job search and to find gainful, and meaningful, employment. 


Stand Out in the Job Market

Despite all the skills and experience that you bring to the table, you will still need to convince employers that you are the right person for the job. However, you also have a number of qualities that make you very hirable. Here are some tips for standing out in this competitive job market:

Emphasize your experience. Older job seekers have so much experience they can draw on. If they have been previously employed, they have decades of work experience. This work history is something younger workers simply do not have. Highlight your years of experience in your job materials and interviews.

Highlight your skills. Make a list of all of the skills you have developed, both in the workplace and outside of work. Then, look at job listings in the fields you want. Circle any skills on your own list that fit the requirements of the job. Pay particular attention to the transferable skills you have (such as communication or managerial skills) that will be useful in almost any job. Also think about skills and qualities you have as a result of your years of experience.

Whether or not you have been in the labor force recently, you likely have qualities gained from experience that employers will want. For example, studies have shownthat employees over 50 are particularly reliable, detail-oriented, and patient. They also have strong leadership skills.

Consider developing new skills. Think about any skills that will be necessary for the job, but that you either lack or have not used in a while. Take some time to develop these skills. For example, if many jobs in your field now require some experience with coding, consider taking a class. There are many free classes online for various skills, particularly in technology. 

Network. Even though you likely already have a number of contacts in your field, you can always make more. Consider joining (or rejoining) a professional association in your field. Revamp your LinkedIn profile. Send a letter to your friends and family and let them know about your job search. Networking is an ideal way to make connections that could lead to a job.

Follow your passion. Especially if you are beginning a second career, try to find a job that allows you to fulfill a lifelong passion. Perhaps you have always wanted to work with kids – if so, then search for a job as a teacher.

Maybe you have always had a woodworking hobby – consider a job as a furniture finisher. Think carefully about what you want to do with this period of your life, and follow your passion!

Age-Proof Your Resume and Cover Letter

One way to overcome the perception that your age is an issue is to age-proof and edit your resume. Limiting what you include on your resume, from a chronological perspective, can help job seekers avoid the stigma of being considered "too old" by a prospective employer. Make sure your references to job skills and accomplishments use contemporary vocabulary. For example, you should use the term “formatted documents” rather than “typed documents.”

Your cover letter is critical, as well. Review these cover letter tips for older job seekers to learn what to include in your cover letter, how to showcase your skills, and how to effectively market your candidacy to employers.

When writing your resume and your cover letters, there's no need to mention every job you've ever had. Include only the most recent positions and, if you attended college, don't list your graduation dates.

Update Your Professional Image

You can strategically write your resume and cover letter, but you can't change the basic facts - your actual age and your employment history are etched in stone. However, there are ways you can work on your appearance when you are job searching. And that can make a significant difference when you're interviewing. Here's how to update your job search image.

Ace a Job Interview

Even though employers can't legally ask you directly about your age, they sometimes ask questions during a job interview to try to determine how old you are. Here are some age-related interview questions and advice on how to respond. Anticipate these questions and have non-defensive, upbeat answers. Review tips and advice for successful interviewing for older seekers, including how to make experience an asset, what to wear, how to address age issues, and how to stay positive at a time when interviewing can be especially challenging.

Consider a Career Change

It can be easier than you might think to change careers. Here's advice on how to successfully implement a mid-life career change. Also consider “try before you buy” contract work in order to reduce the risk of hiring you for the employer.

Get Job Search Help

If you're struggling with your job search, consider seeking assistance. There are no-cost programs provided by OneStop Career Centers, non-profit groups, and local libraries, for example, that can assist. Also, seek out employers who advertise the fact that they value life experience in their hiring strategies. Some companies candidly do not value older workers, but many others do.

Don't Give Up

Keep in mind that it's not just you who is having a challenging job search. The Federal Reserve reports that most of the increase in employment since 2000 (approximately 17 million jobs) has been among workers aged 55 and older. In 2017, 39% of people 55 and over were working, compared to 31% in 2000. The increase is due to the aging of the baby boomer generation and isn't expected to last. However, workers 55 and over are expected to be almost 24% of the workforce through 2027.

Job searching typically isn't always easy, regardless of how old you are. If you think age is hindering your job search, there are strategies you can use to address the situation. So, don't give up. It might take a while to find a job, but there are employers who understand the value of an older worker with maturity, life experience, and skills.


 Updated May 17, 2018