Westpac banks on 'old hands' to make light work

Westpac banks on
By Fiona Smith on 17 August 2016 The workplace often seems universally hostile to mature aged workers, who have to cling for dear life to their existing jobs for fear they will never get hired again.

And that fear is totally justified, thanks to the deeply ingrained prejudices against anyone who is judged to have had too many birthdays to be useful any more.

Yet, thanks once again to demographic shifts that mean we are not giving birth to enough young workers to meet the demand for skills, some employers are starting to realise they not only need to keep their mature-aged workers for longer, they may actually have to start employing more of them.

That same “war for talent” that drove employers to improve working conditions for highly skilled younger people (free food, pool tables and flexible hours) is now starting to kick in for those who are comfortably past middle age.

Westpac taps older talent


At Westpac Banking Corporation - where there are now five generations working alongside each other for the first time — a target has been set to raise the proportion of employees aged 50 and over to more than 20.5 per cent by 2017. It was 20.9 per cent in early 2015.

A handful of employers (such as hardware retailer Bunnings and NSW bus operator Forest Coach Lines) are actively looking to recruit more mature-aged workers, but many others are putting in place policies to try to retain the ones they have for longer.

Former Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan says she witnessed an improvement in employer attitudes in her five years in the role (she handed the position over to Dr Kay Patterson in August).

“We are seeing more opportunities for older people in big businesses that are customer-driven, like the banks and insurance companies, because their customers demand it,” she told Workplaceinfo.

If your house is washed away in a flood or burned down in a bushfire, having a mature-aged person handle your insurance claim can be reassuring.

Ryan says insurance company IAG found it did not have enough claims assessors during a time when it was dealing with floods and bushfires simultaneously. “It is not a job you can put a new young person into,” she says.

“So they offered their retired claims assessors an opportunity to come back part-time for shorter periods, whenever they liked, and it worked terrifically well. So, now they have this regular pool of alumni.

“It is customer-driven. If your house has burned down, you really need someone who can talk you through slowly and carefully all he processes involved. Similarly, if you go to the bank, as an older person, and you want to set up a business and you are 60 and you are looking for a business loan, you are not likely to get the most informed and sympathetic discussion with a 25-year-old, lovely as they are.”

Retailers fail to catch on


Retailers, however, have not caught on to the value of catering to the over-50s and Ryan says she has often heard complaints from older people who feel invisible in shops.

“They can’t get any of the sales assistants to pay them any attention. I heard that story so often that I believe it happens a lot,” she says. “We have a lot of older people with plenty of disposable wealth, but they can’t get the service that they require.”

Hardware retailer Bunnings is a well-known exception, famous for recruiting retired “tradies” to capitalise on their wealth of experience.

The hospitality industry is also lagging in this area, with its assumption that customers want to be served by young, attractive people. Hotel group AccorHotels stands out as a company that is making an effort, offering a five-day training course for older people who would like to make a career switch to work in tourism.

Ryan says some companies are starting to seek older recruits because they are looking for skills that are no longer easily available.

Electricity operator Transgrid, for instance, has a detailed program to keep their older engineers (in particular) at work.

“Electrical transmission engineering is highly specialised and people who have been doing it for a long time are extremely knowledgeable and they might be interested in working a shorter week and mentoring younger engineers and we simply don’t have the skilled people to fill these posts if all of the older people leave,” Ryan says.

Bus company gets on board


NSW bus company Forest Coach Lines is hiring older people as bus drivers: “They are calmer, they are more experienced and they drive school buses and things like that. They find that the maturity of a bus driver who is in their 50s and 60s is valued by the customers and good for the company.”

“Many people come to bus driving as a second or third career, so you get the tradesman who can’t do the heavy lifting any more or that manufacturing workers who loves machines and has a good personality.”

Westpac director of inclusion and diversity, Ainslie van Onselen, says the bank is helping to retain corporate knowledge by extending the tenure of its over-50s employees.

Westpac employees are encouraged to have a staged approach to retirement, reducing their hours, rather than coming to a sudden stop. Managers are trained in having those conversations with employees and a “Prime of Life” employee action group holds events and seminars for people in that age group.

When it comes to recruitment, age is one of the details that is removed from resumes (along with age and names) so that applicants are less likely to be discriminated against on the basis of age, gender, or cultural background, she says.

Some of the best


Dialling down: Inpex, a gas and exploration company, has more than 18 per cent of its Australian workforce aged over 50. The company offers a flexible work arrangement for those transitioning to retirement, including extra unpaid leave and the option of “dialling down” to a less demanding job. It also considers age diversity in teams so there are a variety of perspectives.

Grandparents’ leave: Westpac allows all job roles to be done on a flexible basis and options include flexible work hours, mobile working, part-time work and job sharing. Employees can take purchased leave, career breaks, grandparents' leave and carers’ leave. When they turn 50, they are given three days leave to pursue activities related to retirement, and their long service (after 10 years) leave can be taken in any configuration that suits them. Westpac also partners with Sageco to help with future career planning.

Hiring experience: Accomodation group AccorHotels has eight per cent of its Australian employees aged over 65 and has a special five-day training program for job seekers aged over 50. This includes some on-the-job work experience and feedback about future work opportunities with he group.

Take it easier: Aged care group Catholic Homes offers older workers the option of shorter shifts and flexibility in the amount of physical work to reduce the risk of injury when dealing with patients.

Stayers: Electricity operator Transgrid employs people who are in their 70s and has 29 employees who have been with the company for 40 to 50 years (about 3 per cent of the workforce). Retired employees are brought back as contractors if they wish to continue working and some older employees are working flexibly or are using their leave accruals to scale down work hours while retaining a full-time salary.

Knowledge transfer: Hobson’s Bay City Council in Melbourne allows older people to enter phased retirement. As their hours of work are reduced, another staff member steps in to share the role, enabling the transfer of knowledge , skills and experience.

Extra reading


Willing to Work report, Australian Human Rights Commission 
The most innovative companies don’t care about age

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