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1999 Archives

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 practices.

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 redundancy programmes.

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 financial support. 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 of 75."

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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