Small firms beat staff crisis – using an army of older workers

Thousands of businesses are struggling to hire new staff as vacancies have hit a near record high of close to 1.5 million. But a growing number of firms are adapting to attract older workers and reaping the rewards.

As many as 150,000 over-50s rejoined the workforce last year after quitting during the pandemic, according to official figures released last week. But there are still hundreds of thousands of experienced older workers who have yet to be enticed to return.

Kerry McGowan, of The HR Specialists, has worked in recruitment for decades and believes employers need to put more effort in understanding what older workers value if they want to tempt them back into the workplace.

Flexibility is key – and often more important than salary, says McGowan. ‘People in their 50s and 60s are often relied upon for childcare, and may also be looking after elderly parents,’ she says. ‘When recruiting, companies often omit to offer a flexible role, which means they lose out on such experience.’

Flexible working is the most important measure an employer can offer to support and attract an older workforce, according to a recent survey by insurer Canada Life. Also prized are part-time opportunities and anti-age discrimination policies. McGowan adds that employers need to watch out for unconscious bias when recruiting to ensure that older workers are not unfairly put off or excluded. For example, she mentions application forms that irrelevantly insist on age or dates of schooling and qualifications.

Recruits: Simon Cooper, 62, and, right, apprentice chef Claire Neale, 58

‘People are still being told that they are ‘too experienced’ for a role,’ says McGowan. ‘What does that mean? Similarly, asking about a candidate’s previous salary might rule them out for a role when money may be less of a consideration than having a better work-life balance.’

Claire Neale, 58, has recently started a new role as a commis chef apprentice at Fuller’s pub the Cromwell Arms in Romsey, Hampshire. She had worked as head of housekeeping for five years, but wanted a change.

‘I was the oldest apprentice by about 30 years – they called me Momma Claire! But everyone was really supportive,’ she says. ‘My new role is much more rewarding and it’s been great having another challenge and inspiring my own children. Next year I’m going to train in patisserie and confectionery. I don’t think I ever want to stop learning.’

Dawn Browne, people and talent director at Fuller’s, said: ‘We actively seek out older team members and we are delighted to see them joining us, both in full-time roles and on apprenticeship schemes. We believe you are never too old to learn new skills, and the older generation are often best placed to motivate, support and inspire younger colleagues.’

Growing numbers of businesses are also seeing the value of older workers. ‘Companies such as Wickes, B&Q and Tesco have long recognised the benefit of having people with knowledge and experience, but now it’s also about communication skills,’ adds McGowan. ‘Older people tend to be more comfortable talking to customers, and can show younger people how to interact in the same way.’

Rest Less, a fast-growing digital community for the over-50s, features age-inclusive job adverts on its website. More than 52,000 adverts are currently live, from employers including Lloyds, Sky, Metro Bank and the NHS.

Sophie Gilmore is managing director of energy training provider HybridTec, which has a large proportion of older staff. ‘As well as having greater experience, older people are resilient, have empathy and employ critical thinking. Younger people can learn from that,’ she says. ‘Younger workers also find the stories of what life used to be like fascinating!’

Oliver Rudd, 19, an apprentice at HybridTec, has colleagues who are in their 60s and 70s. He says: ‘Learning and working alongside older peers has had a positive impact on me. They share their industry knowledge and experience. They also take pride in their work, and their level of professionalism is something I aspire to.’

Former financial services consultant Clara Challoner Walker set up Cosy Cottage Soap in Malton, North Yorkshire, in 2017 with her husband Philip. Approaching 60, Clara was keen that her business, which makes handmade soaps and personal care products, reached out to people who might have found it trickier to get work due to their age.

OF her 16 permanent staff, more than half are in their 50s or 60s, and Clara says that it’s benefited her staff and her company.

‘One of the great things about employing older people is that they have a richer life experience, which they are happy to share with younger people,’ she says. ‘They tend to be more willing to help others, great at building team spirit, committed to the role and are happy to mentor younger employees.’

She adds that staff value working beyond retirement age to help supplement their pension as living costs rise. It also means they are staying active and interacting with younger people every day.

Simon Cooper, 62, has worked at Cosy Cottage Soap for three years and says he enjoys learning new skills and working with other people. ‘I’ve been a self-employed illustrator for years and it is quite a solitary existence,’ he says. ‘It’s nice to have a regular income rather than the ups and downs of being a freelancer.’