Monday, May 18, 2009

Gray Hair May be an Employer's Secret Weapon

Normally, when I post a HARO (Help a Reporter Out) query, I get dozens, if not hundreds of responses from people willing to help me with a story. They want to talk about how they are still giving raises, why their business is successful or what they're looking for when hiring new employees.

When I sent a request asking for companies who have hired employees over 45 in the last nine months or so, I got 12 responses. Twelve.

The reasons for this could be many: Companies are not hiring, period. No one paid any attention to my request. The time period was too short -- they've hired older workers in the last couple of years, just not recently.

But my gut -- along with information from other career sources -- tells me that those over 45 are having a tough time landing a job in this economy. Of course, so are a lot of people. Still, I have to wonder if employers aren't passing over resumes with job candidates over 45, or if they're taking one look at the gray hair and thinking: "Next!"

Still, the employers I heard from could not sing enough the praises of their older workers. (I know, I know, like anyone is going to tell me: "I'm not hiring anyone over 40!" That's illegal and they know it.)

At Stearns Lending, for example, 218 employees have been hired in the last six months, and 113 of them were over 40.

“The grayer the better,” says Glenn Stearns, chairman of the California-based Stearns Corp., which has more than 25 companies, including Stearns Lending. “What we want are employees with experience. We could easily pick up people with less experience who are cheaper, but we have a company that survived – and thrived – because of our more experienced people.”

That’s saying something at a time when many of those in the mortgage business have sunk out of sight. But Stearns says that’s just another plus for his company.

“We’ve found an amazing opportunity in hiring really great people that have been let go from other companies,” Stearns says. “Believe me, 20 years in this business means so much. I’m happy to pay more for experience, because we think 100 percent of our success is due to those people.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Debra Freligh, president of DMF Media Service LLC in Sparta, N.J.

“Age has never been a consideration for me. It’s never an issue,” Freligh says. “I recently hired a 50-year-old accountant because of experience and reliability. It has proven to be a great decision.”

While some may balk when they see a job seeker with the lined visage of experience and more than a few gray hairs, Freligh says that employers shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the hard work ethic many older employees bring.

“I had a college intern who I set up to meet with a CEO of a cola company that was being launched. I told him what a great opportunity it was, to give him a feel for marketing. The day of this meeting this student called me and said he was going to New York City with his friends. I had been waiting to meet him and he said he ‘forgot.’ I was floored,” Freligh says.

While Freligh is quick to add that she doesn’t want to malign younger workers interns, she says she finds older workers “so conscientious” and “at a different place in their lives – they’re so happy to get a job.”

Stearns says it’s because his more experienced employees knew how to “size up” borrowers that his company is in such great shape. “Some of the young, inexperienced people for other companies just got caught up in all of these bad loans. They’re now realizing the ramifications of helping people get homes they couldn’t afford. Our older employees were seasoned and knew better. If there is a poster boy for experience paying off, it’s us.”

At the same time, I interviewed 59-year-old Bob Brandon, an experienced landscape architect who has had to move in with his daughter in Missouri after being laid off.

Brandon says he has sent out at least 30 applications since he was laid off in early March from his Phoenix-based company, but so far has only gotten two responses and no job offers. “I’m just not finding anything. It’s really hard. My feeling is that I won’t get hired again. My gut instinct is that no one is interested in hiring an older worker,” he says.

Let's hope that he's wrong. Let's hope that they'll listen to the employers who have hired older workers and say it's one of the best decisions they've ever made.

What can older workers do to improve their chances in getting hired?


David Benjamin said...

Awesome post.

I am constantly amazed at companies hiring decisions and criteria. Instead of focusing on what a candidate can generate in revenue, many focus on salary, promotability, and cost of hire.

It's difficult to replace experience with youth. I understand that companies may want to train their new hires 'the co. way' but maybe the old ways from a proven professional would be the best choice.

Anita said...

As the people interviewed for my story said, they may have to pay a bit more for these workers, but to them, it's an investment in their company and worth the money. Maybe hearing about these benefits direct from the "horse's mouth" will influence them.

Anonymous said...

Your not even thinking about the millions of blue collar workers laid off from all the car co. & hospitality workers over the age of 45. Our employment opportunities are slim & none!