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PERSONAL BUSINESS–Older Job Seekers Can Overcome Age Bias

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on older workers.)

Some mature workers are finding the job market more receptive to them than ever before. Exec-U-Net, a Norwalk, Conn.-based Internet job-posting service, reports its survey of more than 800 executives age 51 to 55 found only 36 percent who believe age discrimination is an important factor.

That number is down 26 percent from a year ago. Nonetheless, bias clearly exists and can be countered by employers and job-seekers alike.

Gerald Schnepf, president of Changing Directions Corp. in Des Moines, Iowa, strives to persuade corporations to update their attitudes about work and aging, and provides training to make the workplace more senior-friendly.

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Iowa’s extremely low unemployment rate makes finding work possible for almost anyone under 50. The recruitment problem is exacerbated by the talent drain of new graduates who leave the state. Yet Iowa’s largely conservative companies aren’t motivated to harvest the untapped skills and brain power of older workers, even when customer relations jobs require compassion and listening, traits usually in the province of mature people.

Schnepf has observed a growing number of older people who want to continue working, but not full time. Many others retire altogether, leave the state, if only because of the harsh winters, and take their savings accounts with them. The cash drain stifles economic growth by removing funds that could be used for lending.

Since about 1997, Schnepf has observed one large insurer using an employment agency to hire some of its former workers. This is far more costly, he states, than retaining workers at fewer hours.

“Most companies working with retirees could set up a transition period during which retirees could adjust themselves as companies adjust work conditions, so that employees could continue without that full-time pressure,” he says. He believes that a construction-related company dependent upon engineers, for example, would be an excellent candidate for such a transition period.

“Why the reluctance?” he asks. “There’s just simply discrimination. Employers tend to pit younger workers against older ones in terms of the cost or burden they’ll be.”

Age bias often foils job searches by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Timothy Pappas, principal at Pappas/Delaney LLC, in Milwaukee, a retained executive search firm recruiting nationwide for board and other senior-level positions, encourages clients to consider candidates who are at least 55.

“Both companies and applicants lose otherwise,” he says. Employers miss a treasure trove of focused individuals.

“Job-seekers who believe that age is an issue and that they’re being discriminated against because of it will act that age, or even older.”

Pappas posits an unusual interview strategy:

– “Job-seekers should sweep the age issue off the table by addressing it outright within the first 10 minutes. Say that you have enough wisdom to determine which mountains to climb and which battles to fight, and that this enables you to get more done. Mention your lack of interest in retiring, digging a hole and falling into it. You have the energy and ability to affect others.

– “Gain empathy by telling a story. Discuss your accomplishments in terms of your career’s beginning, middle and end, with a moral. Explain what you did and what you want interviewers to know about your work’s long-term value. For example, state that ‘Because I was there, the company is still using some of the systems I put into place.’ Failure to mention context keeps you from indicating how a company benefited from your work. Mentioning context also diminishes some of the discomfort from ringing your own bell.

– “If you’re poor at telling stories, put your career in an outline; mention significant points in an order people can follow; think about the moral of each; read a lot and practice.”

Finally, if you’re the interviewer with a bias, “Set your bias back,” Pappas advises. “Try to get through the first 15 minutes without making assumptions about a person.”

In other words, focus upon listening in the first 15 minutes.

“Listening closely to the story,” he concludes, “will allow you to be persuaded by the message rather than messenger.”

Culp sponsors the annual WorkWise Award. Look for more of her helpful information at (www.work-wise.com).

2000 Universal Press Syndicate

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