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Annie Hayes

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The third way: Older workers

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Jobless - Photo Central Audiovisual Library, European Commission
Sainsbury’s, HBOS, B&Q and BT are amongst the high-street names that have jumped aboard the older workers bandwagon and found that at the end of the rainbow there are significant cost savings to be found.


The Office of National Statistics predict that there will soon be three million more people aged 50-65 while the number of people in their 20s will shrink by one million. The employment rate of people over 50 has also been rising but it is still 10% below the employment rate of people aged 25-49: 71% compared to 81%. There is no reason why this gap should exist and there are at least one million people with skills and experience who would like to be in work if they could just find a job to match.

There is a common belief that older workers cost more, are sick more often and are less productive. In fact the data shows that on average people in their 50s cost 10-20% less than those in their 40s (Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings 2005). Data also shows that older people are absent on sick leave less frequently although those that do go sick tend to have more serious and longer lasting conditions.

Overall there is no increase in total sickness absence. However many companies that have deliberately broadened the age range of their workforce have reported smart improvements in sales, profits and staff retention. Some examples are listed below. There are no known cases of a business deliberately taking on over 50s and finding that it has been a disaster.

With this sort of evidence available it seems to make a good case to look at employing older people. Recently launched is a new project which will help employers to review their policies and, for the first time, really give them the ‘bricks and mortar’ to get a policy in place.

The Fair Play Project is a significant initiative for the over 50s for the benefit of the whole of the UK and Europe, and will promote their valuable and unique contribution to the labour market. It has been awarded €2 million by the European Commission to launch and is being piloted in the Yorkshire and Humber region.

The main objectives of the Project are to develop and implement age management tool kits and strategies, to encourage the continued participation or re-entry of older workers into the labour market, and to recognise their contribution and credibility they deserve.

Companies who employ older workers are now waking up to the huge benefits and direct savings that are a result of adopting a suitably constructed age policy. Older workers have different and complementary skills that can augment a younger work force. Their customer care and listening skills together with an experience of life and work can play an essential role within a mixed age group.

Older workers tend to have a developed work ethic and a higher reliability, all leading to greater retention, and a saving on the considerable expenditure dedicated to recruitment and training. Their conscientiousness, loyalty and hard work are all further acknowledged traits that people of over 50 generally have, and together with the acknowledged support to their younger colleagues, make them ideal to have in a business.

Employers are now actively being encouraged to take advantage of what the Fair Play Project can offer to dispel any myths about working with older workers, and to make a real contribution to opening up the employment market. This Project will run until October 2006, which is the expected time for the Age Discrimination Act to become law.

Patrick Grattan is Chief Executive of the Third Age Employment Network (TAEN), which has over 250 member organisations and is committed to making the employment market and lifelong learning work better for employers, people in mid and later career and regional economies.

Grattan says: “Age stereotypes are the most widely experienced form of barriers to opportunity in the workplace. The link between age and status in large businesses is firmly entrenched, and there are the associated problems of older people working for younger bosses.

“Despite the strong UK labour market, one of the greatest barriers to employment is the view that there are no suitable jobs, or that younger people take what there is. Yet there is real competitive advantage in matching the age profile of the workforce to the age profile of your customers. Few companies can claim they are doing it.”

Some companies that are setting an example include: Bradford & Bingley Plc they are the first company to sign up for the new Fair Play Project and are beginning the initial stages of assessment.

  • Sainsbury: recruiting 10,000 mature workers by December 2005, with the over-50s make up 17% of Sainsbury’s total retail workforce. The average annualised labour turnover in retail is 39%.

  • HBOS: an age diverse workforce leads to increased sales, improved customer service and effective resourcing. The over 55’s represent 70% of the UK’s high net worth individuals, 38% of HBOS’s customer base is over 50.

  • BT: The proportion of the workforce over 50 has risen from 13%-26% in four years as a result of flexible working options put in place.

  • B & Q: a store staffed with older people achieved 18% increase in profit, 39% reduction in absenteeism and 59% less product loss.

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Annie Hayes

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