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Older Workers Key to Dynamic UK Companies
By Dennis Smith
If you want low staff turnover and hard working, diligent workers who
do not take time off, then hire someone who is aged over 50. That is
the message being spelled out by some of the United Kingdom's biggest
companies following wide-ranging reviews of their employment
It is in sharp contrast to the pattern in the UK and many other
countries over the last decade when the age at which a person was
considered too old for a new job dropped from 60 to 40 years old.
Companies equated youth with drive, ideas and ambition. They
dispensed with the services of their older workers and specifically
advertised for people in their 20s and 30s.
As a result unemployment among older people has increasingly become
something of an international social problem with men and women, who
still have a lot to offer, being thrown on the employment scrap heap.
Typical of the UK firms who have changed their practices is one of
the country's biggest DIY (do-it-yourself) groups: B&Q. It began at
the start of the 1990s when B&Q recognised that its workforce was
predominantly young and they had a high turnover. They opened two
stores staffed predominantly by the over-50s.
Martin Toogood, managing director, explained: "One of the factors
behind the change was the belief that older people were more likely
to have been involved in do-it-yourself in their own homes. So they
would have an interest in and some knowledge of the products we were
selling and customers related to them more easily. The experiment
worked so well that we started encouraging applications from older
people in all our stores."
The positive attitude towards older workers has proved so successful
that B&Q has abandoned its under-25 age limit for recruitment and
training schemes. Mr Toogood said: "This enables the business to draw
on a wider pool of applicants and choose the best candidates. And
although we have a normal retirement age of 60, employees have the
opportunity to continue on fixed-term contracts."
With 1999 designated the United Nations Year for Older People, Prime
Minister Tony Blair is giving a lead to the nation's initiatives. "We
cannot afford to write off people because of their age," he said in a
recent speech. "We have to change this culture for the good of the
nation, business and individuals. Our country, like most others, is
getting older. That is not a burden. It is an opportunity and it is
the job of government to seize it."
Mr Blair was speaking at the launch of a new code of practice
designed to outlaw age discrimination that was drawn up with the help
of the major employer organisations, the trade unions and
organisations that exist to help older people.
The code's core principles are the abolition of age limits or ranges
in job advertisements, the introduction of mixed-age groups on
interview and promotion panels, and objectivity and flexibility in
Employment Minister Andrew Smith said: "Basing employment decisions on
preconceived ideas - rather than on skills and abilities - is to
waste the talents of a large part of the population and in 10 years'
time more than a quarter of the workforce will be over 50."
The number of older people employed in the UK did, in fact, increase
by over 250,000 last year. And the government has also announced new
measures to help out-of-work over-50s, providing them with specific
training, advice and help with job searches, as well as extra
Research has shown that basing decisions on age can reduce an
employer's choice of the most suitable candidate by as much as 25 per
cent. But the government knows that it cannot alter things by itself.
It needs a change in attitude from other employers such as that
demonstrated by B&Q.
Many firms do realise that in getting rid of the older echelon they
have lost a great deal of experience, ability and corporate wisdom to
little effect. Surprisingly, even the computer industry is looking
positively at older people.
One small UK firm, ADC Secure Limited, has a general manager who,
almost predictably, is 24 but the company has gone out of its way to
have a workforce spanning the age range of 22 to 64.
Reducing turnover of staff is certainly one motive for taking on
older workers for many firms, such as the Nationwide Building Society
which provides loans for potential house purchasers. The Nationwide
does its initial assessment of employees by telephone to avoid any
visual prejudice and the result has been an increased number of
over-50s being recruited.
Tim Jones, a senior executive at one of the country's biggest banks,
NatWest, said that when they had to shed some staff they sought to
make the redundancy terms attractive to employees of all ages without
putting any pressure on older staff. He said: "We want a range of
staff who can be responsive to the needs of our customers. We do not
want to lose valued staff who have the right skills and experience
and certainly not because they are older."
Leading supermarket group Sainsbury's, with 170,000 employees,
targeted older workers because it was felt they might find flexible
working arrangements more attractive than other age groups and it has
drawn up a mixed part income/part pension scheme.
A spokesman for the store said: "Employees know that they can reduce
their hours without significantly decreasing their net income and
that we will continue to contribute to their pension up until the age
Maurice Kelly, a director of the Granada retail and leisure group,
put it this way: ``Many companies struggle with recruitment yet let
experienced staff leave the business when they reach retirement age.''
The leading employers' organisation, the Confederation of British
Industry, said it believed the code would help to change attitudes
and encourage moves towards fairer treatment for all ages in the
workforce. "It provides a simple and practical tool for employers to
ensure equal opportunities are universally applied," a spokesman said.
The UK government is planning to assess the working of the code over
the next two years and, depending what happens, could consider
legislation to give it legal force.
For more information:
Department for Education and Employment
Great Smith Street, London,
United Kingdom, SW1 3BT
Telephone: +44 171 925 5108
Fax: +44 171 925 6730
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