No Boomers Left Behind

"Old age and treachery will always outdo youth and skill.”

Recalling that sentence as it hung from a client’s desk made recruiter Andrew McNeilis burst into laughter. But behind the humor is a large morsel of truth.

“People want experience,” said McNeilis, chief operating officer at London-based recruitment agency Phaidon International. “People who have been to the school of hard knocks and have the scar tissue of experience and the moral character to do the right thing are absolutely in demand.”

With the shine on a burgeoning tech culture promoting youth, it’s easy to overlook the large percentage of older workers still in the labor force.

And while most talent managers are focused on adapting to new channels of recruiting to reach top talent of a millennial generation — a group predicted to make up half the workforce by 2020 — recruitment experts say they shouldn’t ignore the value more experienced workers bring to the table. 

The baby boomer generation currently accounts for 31 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to a 2013 Gallup poll, the most recent year for which figures were available at publication. Furthermore, according to a study by the AARP, half of baby boomers anticipate to work past age 70, with 36 percent expecting to remain in the workforce until they die.

Failing to recruit this demographic means ignoring a large population of the workforce. And in some instances, doing so might mean breaking the law.

In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission works to ensure that individuals over age 40 are not discriminated against at any point in their careers. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1976, which applies to employers with 20 or more employees, prevents employers from using age to disqualify a potential candidate or using it as a reason to terminate employment, among other protections.

What’s more, McNeilis said in the United Kingdom, employees are now not allowed to put their date of birth on their résumés, which used to be conventional, preventing even the remote possibility of candidate age discrimination when recruiters consider whom to bring in for an interview.

While these regulations appear to put the onus on the employer when it comes to cultivating more experienced talent, in reality both employer and candidate share the responsibility.

Myth of Inaccessibility

When targeting an older workforce for recruitment, a company’s strategy doesn’t have to change much, experts say.

Given the anticipated influx of the millennial generation into the workforce, many companies have adjusted their talent acquisition practices to include a stronger presence on social media. But one of the biggest misconceptions that McNeilis has come across is that the baby boomer generation is not accessible through the same channels.

At staffing firm Phaidon International, for example, older professional workers are targeted through job boards and social media platforms including Facebook and LinkedIn just like their millennialcounterparts.

“They are completely savvy,” McNeilis said. “They’re with it. They’re looking to get that right job just like the graduate who has just graduated with an enormous amount of debt to pay off.”

In fact, there are currently more baby boomers than millennials on Facebook, according to Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based recruitment agency. These channels give companies access to a variety of demographics with a single post.   

Companies also tend to make the incorrect assumption that the two generational groups are not using one another to network and find jobs, Gimbel said. “If you want to expand your workforce, the biggest mistake I’ve seen companies make is to assume that only older people can recruit older people and only younger people can recruit younger people,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that millennials are going to have relationships with their parents, their parents’ friends and alumni associations.”

Even if baby boomers are not reading a company’s tweet firsthand, the information it contains is likely shared through conversations in their networks, Gimbel said. Companies can in effect count talent acquisition strategies targeted at millennials as having likely reached baby boomers as well.

Still, baby boomers shouldn’t rely completely on relationships with millennials to get the job information being shared via social media. They still need to make some effort to keep up with the latest technology.

“It’s the same thing as 10 years ago learning how to use Excel and Word,” Gimbel said. “Think about if someone said, ‘I don’t want to learn that. I learned to use a typewriter. I’ve been there. I’m old.’ ”

Maria Heidkamp, a senior researcher at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, said older employees are responsible for increasing their social media literacy so that they have access to potential job opportunities. Heidkamp said she recognizes that social media is a leading form of networking, and older candidates who lack those skills are severely limiting themselves.

“Given the speed of technology-driven and other changes in the workplace, employers want to see credentials that are current, or at least a willingness to pick up new skills,” Heidkamp said. 

Experience Isn’t Enough

Although older workers bring experience to the table, experts say talent managers should consider a host of other factors in their recruitment.

Both McNeilis and Gimbel said experience is the chief reason why companies should assign resources to recruiting older workers. There is value to having made and learned from mistakes made over the course of a career.

“Older workers have been through things that younger people just haven’t had the opportunity to experience,” Gimbel said. “It ultimately means that they are less likely to make the same mistakes two andthree times.”

However, if that experience is not targeted toward specific company goals, hiring will not be effective, Gimbel said. Instead of focusing on years spent in the industry, employers should target soft skills that can help drive overall company performance.

McNeilis cited the banking industry as an example of an industry that has done this effectively. According to McNeilis, prior to the banking crisis, youth and risk-taking behavior were highly valued in the industry. Since the fallout, banks are targeting older, experienced professionals who are typically more conservative in their financial decision-making.

“Banking is about the management of capital and risk,” McNeilis said. “The industry defines wisdom as knowledge with hindsight and mistakes made and learned from. Our clients in the banking industry want considerable experience. They want someone who has been through the cycle before.”

Outlining a clear definition of what experience means to an individual company makes hiring more effective in the long run. The success of such practices is increased through what Gimbel has deemed the “unconventional interview.” This involves avoiding classic interview questions and sprinkling in personal questions about family and friends that can help an employer deduce character.

“There are so many books on interviewing and there are so many coaches that the traditional interview has become a cliché,” Gimbel said. “You want to get candidates out of that mode. Get them to relax and be conversational with you. It will develop a certain level of honesty and candidness that will help differentiate the candidate base.”

Gimbel said he stresses looking for a positive attitude in the interview as well. Older employees can tend to be overconfident because they feel that their years on the job give them a competitive edge. Employers should look for candidates who are humble and able to take direction.

Also, have a co-worker interrupt the interview to gauge how well an older candidate handles stress and responds to impromptu challenges, Gimbel said.

IDK My BFF Jill

Older workers also need to fit into an organizational culture to succeed.

“If I was going to give some advice to the older generation, it would be to do some research and think about times in their career when they’ve successfully adapted to culture,” McNeilis said. “Where I see older people failing to get jobs is not because they can’t do the job. They have buckets of experience and all the qualifications they’ll ever need. It’s about demonstrating that they really are still lean and hungry and they want to work and earn and learn.”

On the candidate end, that means putting in the effort to research a company’s culture before going into an interview — something every candidate, regardless of age, should be expected to do.

McNeilis recalled a visit he made to a Silicon Valley startup called Boo.com in 1999. He wore a suit and tie to the company’s offices and incidentally caused a panic around the office. He said everyone thought he was an auditor.

“Everyone was in jeans and T-shirts,” McNeilis said. “I’m not suggesting older generations should have their jeans hanging off their butts, but before they go in for an interview, they need to ask questions about the company’s culture. If they turn up in a three-piece suit and the interviewer is in jeans and a shirt, it can set the wrong tone.”

While candidates need to commit to reconnaissance, employers should avoid snap judgments.

“I think there is a misnomer that certain company cultures only attract millennials and certain cultures only attract baby boomers,” Gimbel said. “I know plenty of millennials who are old souls and I know plenty of baby boomers who would like to be around millennials. It’s really about the work you need to get done and what your culture is from a work ethic standpoint.”

Show Them the Money … Or Don’t

If experience is hard to define, it’s even harder to appraise. 

Compensation is a pain point that many employers encounter when interviewing older workers. Older candidates often assume that lengthy job histories equate to hefty salaries, but that is not necessarily the case.

“As an employer, you can’t always go into the interview process thinking you’re going to have to pay up for somebody,” Gimbel said. “I think a lot of times an employer can get intimidated by someone’s salary history. Positions pay what they pay. It’s the candidates decision whether they want to take the position or not.”

A great deal depends on the candidate’s employment status at the time of the interview. “The advice I give everybody is that you’re a lot more employable employed than you are unemployed,” McNeilis said. “If someone is out of work, they are not in a negotiating position that is strong and they tend to have to compromise on their idealistic salary and benefits expectations compared to someone who already has gainful employment and doesn’t have to leave it.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in September 2014 the average duration of unemployment for older jobseekers was about 42 weeks compared with about 30 weeks for younger job seekers. Those wanting to remedy that situation as quickly as possible will likely take a pay cut to secure health care benefits and continue to save for retirement, Heidkamp said.

The reality is that candidates at the top of their field will likelyexpect to be paid top dollar for shifting into a new position, so consider budget before committing to a candidate.

“Companies need to be open to the right types of people,” Gimbel said. “Find someone with the right skills and the attitude you need. It doesn’t matter if they’re 55 or 25.”