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Older workers good value, says age champion

Never mind the human rights issue, smart employers are discovering that keeping their experienced staff makes good business sense, Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan tells Darragh O Keeffe.

In the midst of an ongoing skills shortage, compounded by the challenges of recruiting young people and competition for migrant workers, smart employers will recognise the strengths of their older workers and will implement strategies to retain them.

This will be particularly so for employers in the health and community sectors, given the impending exodus of senior nurses and clinicians as a critical mass reaches retirement age.

That’s according to Susan Ryan, Australia’s Age Discrimination Commissioner, who in an interview with INsite said that while age discrimination in employment practices remained a troubling issue, she was seeing signs of change among major employers.

Ryan welcomed the recent initiative of Bupa Care Services, which, as INsite reported recently (Feb/March 2012), examined its internal data and found its older workers were among its most productive and least likely to take sick time or claim worker’s compensation.

“I’m very impressed with it and it’s encouraging that a large employer in this sector such as Bupa has decided to do this analysis to find what they have found, which is all leading to better opportunities for older workers,” she said.

She suspected the Bupa findings would be replicated across the sector, or indeed any sector where workers were dealing with the public.

“The information suggests that your customer base is going to feel very comfortable being served by someone who is approximately of their demographic and often, without wanting to denigrate younger workers, older workers have learned how to relate to people,” she said.

Notwithstanding her role as a human rights commissioner, Ryan said she didn’t expect business to hire people purely out of a human rights agenda. However, the increasing availability of research, such as that from Bupa, showed it made business sense to “make good use of your older, experienced, loyal workers”.

Older workers were often seen as a cost risk; the fear being they would have more workplace accidents or get sick more frequently. However, the data was indicating otherwise. The difference might be that an older worker who had a physical accident may take longer to recover, but their “strike rate of accidents” was in fact lower, Ryan said.

Age discrimination in employment practices remained “a big problem”, she acknowledged, and older workers faced discrimination from big and small employers alike. “And individuals suffer terribly as a result of being kicked out of the paid workforce long before they’re ready, so it’s a real issue.”

However, she had encountered several major companies that were bucking the trend and implementing strategies to retain older workers – offering retraining where needed, or looking at flexible work arrangements.

“The forward looking business leaders are doing this because it’s clear that to waste the resources that your over-50s represent at a time when we have a skills shortage, need more migrants, and can’t get enough young people makes no business sense.”

When asked for examples of pioneering employers in this area, Ryan pointed to Bunnings Warehouse, which had a practice of recruiting older workers out of the building industry. Often these people had suffered physical stress and strain and could no longer work in their manual jobs, but their knowledge of building materials remained considerable.

“That’s exactly the kind of people you or I want advising us when we walk into a store looking for a floor cover or something. It is very clever of Bunnings to deliberately hire these people, and their business is thriving as a result.”

Ryan agreed with the proposition put to her that the health sector, including aged care, could particularly benefit from retaining its older workers given the impending mass exodus of senior nurses reaching retirement age.

“That’s right and all the [employing] authorities can’t put this off any longer, because there is this whole cohort of senior nurses that will retire. The employers have to ask, what do we do to keep you?”

While there were many graduate nurses coming into the sector, the experience and knowledge of senior nurses was essential, particularly since many new entrants would require mentoring and oversight, she said.

“Mentoring is a much undervalued activity; we all need to learn how to do things when we start our jobs or when we move to a senior level. Unless there is a conscious effort to provide mentoring, a lot of talented and able people will flounder.”

For that reason, smart employers will be looking at ways of retaining older workers, providing flexible working arrangements or create pools of mentors. “They can restructure people’s jobs so they’re working a shorter day or week. Or letting someone have those three months off to travel with their spouse and keeping their job open for them. It’s all possible.”

Ryan was speaking to INsite ahead of her appearance at the upcoming Cultural Diversity in Ageing 2012 Conference in Melbourne.

She said cultural diversity provided key challenges for aged care providers, as older people who came from non-English speaking backgrounds often reverted to their native language as they aged – and many services weren’t prepared for that.

Aside from language, many cultures traditionally viewed caring for the elderly as something that happened in the home, rather than in institutional care. “So the idea of the older person from a non-English speaking background going into residential aged care is quite tough. Often the family and older person are not at all comfortable with it, so one obvious answer is to make sure the care-at-home services are greatly improved,” she said.

Australia’s multiculturalism also played in its favour, however, as Ryan said several providers had told her they had staff with the same language backgrounds as the residents. “And they said they could often find one of their care staff speaking to a resident in their own language and that is wonderful,” she said.

In July last year Ryan was appointed Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner for a five-year term. Up until her appointment, she had been Women’s Ambassador for ActionAid Australia and chaired the Australian Human Rights Group since 2008.

From 1975 to 1988, Ryan was a senator for the ACT, becoming the first woman to hold a cabinet post in a federal Labor government. In the Hawke government she served as minister for education and youth affairs, minister assisting the prime minister on the status of women and special minister of state.

The Cultural Diversity in Ageing 2012 Conference takes place at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from June 7-8. Go to: www.culturaldiversity.com.au

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