At work, a new premium on years

Late last year, Catherine Gonzales found herself unemployed after stints at two dotcom companies.

A mother in her mid-40s, she grew somewhat concerned about what the demand might be for an older worker in a slowing economy. Yet by talking up her experience, Ms. Gonzales landed a job last month as a product manager for a high-end, kitchen-and-bath-product retailer in San Francisco.

"You might see a few gray hairs at the top, but I've earned these," she says.

While no statistical evidence shows older workers are winning more job opportunities, workplace experts say that employers are now giving older, more-experienced job seekers the edge over their younger counterparts. The perceived preference for cagey youthfulness has given way to a preference for silver-haired sagacity.

"There's still a war for talent, but the war is for talent with a track record," says Bonnie Gwin, a managing partner with the Atlanta-based recruiting firm Heidrik & Struggles International.

The change in attitude, experts say, is fundamentally linked to the different strategies that companies employ in a growing economy and a declining economy.

"Companies are prizing experience. It's interesting how quickly it can flip from last summer, when risk taking, and creativity - thinking out of the box - were the qualities that companies were looking for to take advantage of that extraordinary growth, " says John Challenger, president of the Chicago-based placement agency of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "Now, with almost zero growth, this is a time when you pull in, you shelve plans that are too risky, too costly, and you concentrate on protecting what you have."

In essence, while the young workers were seen as a driving force behind the economic gains of recent years, older workers are now viewed as being able to protect those gains.

While recent boom years gave employees the luxury of skipping from one job to another, the ball is slowly moving back toward the employers' court, and many now seek workers who are less likely to jump ship.

"They're looking for more stable employees who've had real-life experiences," says Kevin Conley, managing director for northeast recruiting at the Los Angeles-based recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International.

And that's an important consideration for companies that invest time and thousands of dollars training each new hire.

In faster times, "a company would take a chance on [younger employees] because the money was there, and the economy was there. And if it didn't work out, it didn't work out," says Lynda Wood, vice president of full-time placement at Adecco International, a recruiting agency in Melville, N.Y. "And now, people are being more cautious. The economy absolutely isn't as strong, ... so if you do make the wrong hire now, it's really going to effect you that much more."

Older workers are also beginning to make their mark in an industry that was thought to have the least desire for them - information technology. "The advantage that kids coming out of school today have is that they've been computerized," says Jim Del Greco, general manager at New York City-based Sloan Staffing Services. "But the older generation has tried to play catch-up aggressively, and the gap that existed has narrowed. Older employees are no longer viewed as dinosaurs."

While older workers are seeing advantages to their age in today's job market, stereotypes can still work against them. Walter McKaige, a 56-year-old product chain manager and consultant from Lampeter, Pa., says that since receiving "a very nice" severance package at the end of last year from his former consulting firm, he has sent out roughly 75 resumes, leading to three interviews. "I may be wrong, but I thought I was getting an imputed age calculation dumped on me," he says.

With his resume showing he graduated from Drexel University in 1970, and other indicators of his age, Mr. McKaige wonders if employers speculate that "He's got to be fifty-something years of age. Do we really want this guy?"

Gonzales also sensed age stereotypes when she was job hunting. For employers, "youth equals vitality, energy, and a willingness to work 10- or 12-hour days," she says, while age was sometimes equated with a lack of energy and flexibility.

Older workers, she adds, should present their experience and the fact that they have held down different jobs as the asset that makes for a more flexible, capable worker. "This is a good time for more mature workers to go out and find jobs that will be fulfilling. Employers are looking at them in a whole new light," she says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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