How Your Age Plays a Factor in Job Hunting
American writer Thomas Wolfe once said: "Man's youth is a wonderful thing: it is so full of magic and he never comes to know it, until it has gone from him forever."
Pardon me for beginning a bit philosophical. But I can't help myself.
During a recent visit to the barbershop, my longtime haircutter Sofia razzed me about how big the bald spot on the back of my head has become. Perhaps I didn't appreciate the full head of hair I had twenty years ago until, as the writer says, it is gone forever.
Many readers who write me are concerned about their age and how it might affect their job hunt. This past month one veteran told me bluntly, "Am I too old to get hired?"
I was going to email him and write something official like, "Age discrimination is against the law. Hiring managers never take age into account when considering a job applicant."
But I didn't send it to him.
When I wrote it, I glanced up from my computer to think about what I had just written and peeked at my TV, which I usually leave turned on with the volume off while working at home.
I saw on the screen the show Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People, with lots of handsome looking men and women prancing around and making fools of themselves to the delight (I guess) of the audience and the show's sponsors.
In America, we are blasted with images of Youth everyday on TV, Radio, Billboards, the Internet, etc. So I can't blame anyone at middle age or beyond when the world makes them feel as useful as Whistler's Mother hanging on a wall in an art museum.
Bald spots can be covered or corrected surgically (if you're that vain), but you can't hide from the movement of time and how it may affect your ability to earn a living.
How does a job applicant's age play a factor in job hunting?
Excluding those under legal age or a hair away from 100 years old, well, it really shouldn't. And I honestly think it usually doesn't for three reasons:
- It's against the law along with the taboos of gender, religious and racial discrimination.
- The hiring strategies are different: "youth" hiring is skills-focused, "mature" hiring tends to be goals-focused.
- Employers have more than enough factors to choose or eliminate a job candidate than resorting to the wrinkles on your face.
But if you feel "old," how can you overcome whatever stigma you associate with being "over the hill"? Simple. First, take a step back and understand your value to an employer. Then, form a strategy that gives you hiring appeal.
My first job out of the Navy was as a field service engineer for a $6-billion (annual sales), Fortune 400 company serving the global industrial automation and controls industry; it manufactured products such as truck transmissions, engine components, automotive switches, electronic controls and hydraulic products.
I was employed in its Electric Drives Division and worked on electronic products that controlled motors for any kind of industrial automation application imaginable--from small conveyors to printing presses to large cranes, skyscraper air-conditioning plants and factory stamping presses. (For the technically curious, the controls are called pulse width modulated (PWM) inverters. You can get a feel for this technology by clicking here.)
I was hired with two, 22-year old, college grads. Both had just earned their electrical engineering degrees.
I got the job through networking. (In fact, all of us did. One of the college grads had a relative who worked for the company; the other was a student of one of the company's design engineers who taught a few classes at local college.)
The company had little success finding viable candidates through newspaper ads. (The Internet wasn't around in 1987.) Since the company employed many folks with military experience, a hiring manager visited Great Lakes Naval Training Center where I was teaching, dropped off some business cards and told my colleagues about the job. By word of mouth, I got one of the cards and made first contact. Two months later, I was hired.
At the time I did not understand nor think too much about why I was hired until one busy day my boss visited my desk. He tossed a service manual on it, and told me to read it for an hour, then go down to the engineering lab and play around with the product and in the afternoon drive one hundred miles to make a service call.
It was a lot to ask of a new employee who had never seen this "obsolete" product before.
Even though I was apprehensive, I realized it was an old product, which generally meant its technology was mature and all the design bugs had been corrected a long time ago. Since it had been installed for a long time at the customer's site, I didn't have to worry about improper installation or application problems, either. I just had to find the failed part to fix the problem.
So, I read the manual, went down to the lab, asked a few old timers about its common problems, formed a troubleshooting strategy, and went on my way.
I solved the problem and fixed the equipment even though it took me longer than the customer had liked. But he signed the service invoice with a "thank you" and I drove home with a smile on my face.
When I returned to the office the next day, my two young colleagues told me that I was crazy to go out on that job!
Both said they would never have gone because they had never received training on the product. I told them it would be impossible to be trained on everything we were responsible for as I glanced at the 4-foot wide bookcases stuffed with tech manuals that lay across the top of each of our desks.
Nevertheless, they stuck to their guns, shook their heads and went back to their desks. I didn't quite understand their point. It wasn't as if I was bungee jumping off a 300-foot cliff; I just went on a job that my boss assigned to me. Anyway, I shrugged it off and went about my business.
This experience clarified in my mind what my value was to the company: my ability to adapt and solve problems.
I'm sure that's why my boss hired me, despite the fact that I did not know the finer points of designing switch-mode PWM inverters. But I was no slouch, either. But I had been maintaining, servicing and teaching inverter technology in the Navy for the last five of my ten years of service.
What was the value of the two young college grads who felt our boss was asking too much? Better than that, why were they hired?
Hiring decisions are complex and few job hunters realize the dynamics that drive the final decision. I surely didn't at the time. But over the course of the year, I understood why we--both young and old-- were hired.
The company had just released its new flagship product, based upon a new technology that promised to grab market share from its competitors. Simply put, the company expected to make a lot of money from the new product.
This is a common strategy in the technology business: Using innovation, a technology producer injects a new product into the marketplace to disrupt its balance thereby giving it a market advantage, that is, an opportunity to accumulate market share at the expense of its competitors.
Unfortunately, like many companies who launch new products, they learned about its bugs from the very people they were trying to court--their customers. This new product was no different. It was failing in the field at an above average rate, causing warranty costs to skyrocket.
Prior to hiring me, the service manager had been under pressure to solve these customer problems (band-aid fixes) until the engineering department fixed (if any) product design flaws. Needless to say, the engineering manager was under immense pressure.
To keep up with the demand for on-site service calls from all over the U.S., the service manager was in the hiring mode. He hired me because he needed someone who could both understand inverter technology and troubleshoot complex systems.
(Note: While the product was an electronic controller, it was incorporated into machinery which had electronic, electrical, mechanical, pneumatic and hydraulic sub-systems that were all interfaced together with programmable logic controllers.)
But the plot thickens here ...
The engineering manager "blamed" the new product failures on the service department.
He alleged the service team was not qualified to maintain this new technology. After many heated meetings, the service manager conceded and hired the two new college grads.
They were hired to function as a de facto engineering department within the service department. Their role was to be the "eyes and ears" of the design department, since they had engineering degrees and, apparently, a higher level of expertise than myself.
Was age a factor here? Hmm...not really.
Basically, two department managers had a difference in opinion of how the service department should be staffed to address a business need.
I answered a real, practical and present need, that is, servicing customers. The young grads answered in part the same need but really were hired for a future need, that is, helping the engineering department re-design this new product.
In the end, the product had to be reworked several times. The software had reached its sixth version when I left the company. (I heard from another employee a year later that it took ten software code rewrites to get it right.)
About a year after I had departed the company, one of the college grads left the service department and transferred into sales. The other was being considered for a position within the engineering department.
After the new product had been debugged, the service manager reverted back to his old hiring standards, seeking candidates who, like myself, were weighted towards troubleshooting experience.
1. Hiring managers rarely use "age" as the primary factor in hiring a particular job candidate. Rather, choosing to hire a candidate is an interplay of many factors but the final decision stems from a particular company's "culture," that is, how its managers and staff solve problems to accomplish business goals.
2. Young workers will always be identified with "knowledge" and older workers with "experience." The key hiring point here is how does an employer prioritize these values. If the employer values "knowledge" more, then you have to beef up your credentials to be competitive. Conversely, if the employer values "experience" more, then you have to demonstrate knowledge through your experience in your resume and job interviews.
3. Since an organization's culture determines who gets hired or not, it is essential for a job hunter to find out as much as possible about a future employer's culture to win a job. This means you must network to improve your chances of winning a job.
Nowadays, age is not the primary driver in hiring decisions. Rather, what matters most is first, your skills, then your experience, and finally, the answer to the following questions: Which job applicant can I work with? Who can I trust to get the job done? Who will make us look good?
While I would never discourage older worker who has a legitimate case of discrimination from seeking legal recourse, I would recommend the worker examine all the factors revolving around a hiring decision first and then correct any shortcomings he may have to make the hiring pendulum swing in his direction. Here's a few to consider:
Resume: Never advertise your age on your resume. You may have twenty years of experience, but generally hiring mangers are looking at your last ten years, closely at your last five years and very closely at your last position. So, drop off the ancient history.
In those ten years of experience, be very specific about how you applied your knowledge and experience to achieve organizational goals. This will differentiate you from the "young" competitors and give you an edge because they generally have few examples of real life application at this point in their career.
Goals: Something happens after you have about ten years of job experience: employers become more concerned about your goals than your skills.
Hiring managers are sharp people. They can scan a resume and tell if a candidate has the skills or not for an open position. What they cannot divine from a resume is what your goals are because very few people spend time formulating a good objective.
Most job hunters spend all their time articulating their skills and experience--factors essential when hiring young workers--and never really get around to answering the question: "What are you looking for?"
This is the key question in employers' minds when considering a mature job candidate. They can tell when an older worker has the skills to do the job. However, older workers are usually in business development, supervision, or product development "leadership" positions which require a delicate balance of skills, business and organizational culture aptitudes. In leadership positions, goals matter.
Finding a job candidate that has these aptitudes can be more of challenge than you think. But the process can only begin if the employer feels the job hunter shares their goals and objectives.
Take the time to write a detailed career objective that covers the types of tasks and activities you want to do. This will help the employer a lot. (By the way, avoid saying, "I want to work for a quality company, etc.)
Education: Nowadays, work is knowledge intensive and that is the sole reason why young workers are being sought by good employers. So, mimic them. Beef up your knowledge level so no potential employer can turn you down for the lack of it. If it means you have to go back to school, do it! You won't be alone. Lots of older people have returned to college. Plus, the college experience later in life will make you feel young and refreshed.
Geography: I always shake my head when I talk to a vet who tells me "I would like to settle down in St. Louis, Missouri but I didn't find any jobs there that deal with my skills."
When you begin your job hunt with the geographical priority you immediately limit your opportunities and usually end up getting discouraged.
Rather than focusing on a particular city or state, target a specific region: Northeast, Midwest, West, East, etc. Better yet, research where the industry sector you are seeking employment in gravitates to and target that region. This approach has an added benefit. If you find yourself back in the job hunt a few years down the road, you probably won't have to move because you will have plenty of companies nearby to query for a job. Very often, people laid off by one company are re-employed by a competitor.
However, don't throw away your dream about moving back home just yet. You can use geography to your advantage if you are strategic and clever.
Good companies are growing companies. To grow, a company must expand into regional areas. This is a perfect opportunity for an older worker. If you find a company you really want to work for, inquire if they are opening a local office in your area. If so, tell them you're interested. If not, tell them to keep you in mind when they do. Younger workers will rarely if ever employ this strategy.
Salary: Rather than the age-factor, salary issues are more likely the deciding factor for hiring a qualified young worker over an older worker, when everything else is equal.
Due to their time in the workforce, older people just earn more than young people. Companies have budgets. Salaries are perhaps the biggest part of them. While most employers would love to bid down the salary, they are wise enough to know once an employee finds another opportunity with higher pay, they'll fly the coop.
You can get around the salary problem by paying heed to one simple caveat: Do not apply for jobs you're over-qualified for.
Only apply for jobs that match your knowledge, experience and goals. Then you won't be competing against the young and the hiring decision will not come down to a salary bidding war.
Sure, you may be a new military retiree, looking for your first job, so you want to start from the bottom. That's how it's done in the military, not in the private sector. Today's workplace may not allow you to use the "start from the bottom" approach for two reasons:
- Corporations nowadays are "moveable feasts," that is, they change rapidly, to adapt to changing market conditions. So they hire for specific needs and not necessarily for the long haul, like the military.
- Lots of qualified new college grads are vying for entry-level positions so competition is intense at that level.
I suspect there are some skeptics reading this article who may be thinking:
This is all well and good. But even if I spent the time getting a college degree, considering my age, they still would find a reason not to hire me!
It's a fair point. And that's why you have to choose your "weapon" and implement a "war" strategy to "battle" successfully.
Look, young people will always be courted for their knowledge and education. That's all they have to offer! But knowledge alone will not get you a job, keep you in that job and make the company a winner. The "dot coms" or Internet companies of the late 1990s illustrate this point so well.
These Internet companies--the ones who spent gads of money on SuperBowl advertising--were primarily staffed by young people who had Internet technology "knowledge" skills. As a group, I always found them to be articulate, clever, savvy and creative.
However, by 2001 the rate at which these companies failed--closed down, went bankrupt, bought out--increased so fast that companies which once had valuations in the billions of dollars were being hawked for fire-sale prices.
The economists and business analysts would attribute the rapid-fire failures due to a lack of money (venture capital), underdeveloped markets and products, and just too many competitors for too few customers. This is generally true. But it's not the whole story.
When I was a reporter for Internet News, I often thought about this question. Upon reflection, I think the reason why most of these companies failed was due to the youth and inexperience of their staffs.
Had these companies hired more older workers, who bring maturity and practicality to the job, to balance out the creativity and idealism of the younger workers, I believe, many investors' money would have been saved, many jobs would still be around and today's economy would be a very different scene.
Never be seduced to believe that hiring managers believe "youth is everything." They are seeking candidates who can make their companies winners. They know the consequences if they don't. They won't exist for very long.
The most important thing to realize about how age plays a factor in job hunting is that the process of job hunting changes with age.
The young and inexperienced can seek and gain employment from open positions posted in places such as newspaper want ads, job websites, or official job postings. After all, they are seeking entry-level positions. The requirements for these types of positions are easy to capsulize in a short job ad.
But as one ages, your experience and expertise increases your value so you compete for senior level positions. These positions are harder to describe in a short advertisement.
As a result, older job hunters increasingly seek jobs through personal contacts, established business relationships and networking. These activities give both the job hunter and the employer information about each other that a resume or a job interview can't.
The spawning of jobs websites such as MilitaryHire.com have alleviated some of these problems for the older job seeker.
These websites have revolutionized the job search process by extending the reach of both job hunters to open positions and employers to qualified employees. Many senior level positions that previously were "advertised" in the hidden job market have now gone public.
A niche job hunting website like MilitaryHire.com has the added benefit of dealing with some of the intangibles of job hunter-to-employer matches.
Niche websites act like magnets to iron filings. They attract both job hunters and employers who have something in common, in this case, military experience. That is, employers interested in candidates with this kind of experience and job candidates interested in jobs with this kind of experience.
Effectively, a niche website can deal cultural issues of employee acquisition. An employer who places a job ad on MilitaryHire.com is saying "We want to hire the military." Not all companies do.
Yet, despite the benefits of job websites, the job hunter must realize that websites' primary value is in the beginning phase of an employment relationship.
While a jobs website gives a job hunter access to many companies and open positions, websites do not provide the "inside" information that is passed in a networking relationship.
Networking gives you the inside dope of an organization so both the employer and job hunter can answer these kinds of questions:
- Does that person have the same goals as we do?
- Can he or she work in a fast paced environment?
- Can that person handle our kind of stress?
- Will the person work in our kind of work environment?
- Could that person be the leader we really need in the department, which habitually overruns its budget?
- Will the person fit into our present team?
- Will the person stick around?
- Is she trustworthy?
- Will he pay his expense account of time?
Networking is an essential complement to your use of a jobs website. So, how do you begin networking?
Here are ten examples of how to get started. Success in any one of these will further the goals of your employment search.
1. Tell everyone you know you are looking for a job. All your personal and social contacts have "contacts." And their "contacts" have contacts, etc. This is how people hear about jobs even before they are posted.
2. Go to Church. Churches and religion have not only satisfied the spiritual needs of Americans, they have historically been an important social gathering point as well. Becoming involved in a church and its activities can not only make you feel good, it will expand your world of contacts.
3. Volunteer work. The value of volunteer work parallels the community activities of many churches. Community groups, such as the Rotary Club, are especially valuable because they generally attract local business leaders who are usually hiring managers.
4. Join professional associations. Every industry sector or profession has some kind of trade association. These associations assist their membership on an organizational level through governmental lobbying as well as on an individual level through professional development. You can find these associations via most search engines.
5. Read the trade press. Industries and companies have their own newspapers and magazines that report on the news within the industry. They provide detailed portraits of what is going on within that industry. Generally, these publications have a directory of companies. The articles contain names of various managers.
By reading the trade press you will be able to feel out an industry. This can be a clear advantage when querying a company or preparing for a job interview. Here's an example.
6. Attend a job support group or job fair. These groups are a fairly recent phenomenon. They meet typically once a week for an hour and most are free. Usually there is a speaker who makes a presentation about job hunting. The attendees have an opportunity to learn about networking. You can find groups in your area via search engines or your local public library.
Job fairs are a great opportunity to spend some time with employers face-to-face. The feedback you receive will be of immense value. Most job fairs are published in community newspapers. They can also be found via search engines.
7.Attend professional seminars. These seminars are generally published in the business section of the Sunday newspaper. They cover topics of concern for particular professions. You'll have ample opportunity to pass around your resume, business card or talk shop. Here's an example.
8. Get a part-time job. You will find a lot of people who have part-time jobs are in the same boat as yourself. Not only will you make a little spare money, you'll be circulating and making new contacts.
9. Join professional email lists. Most professional associations operate a listserv for its members. Jobs pop up on these email lists all the time. (Many times employers will post jobs on them before they post them anywhere else.)
10. Join an athletic club. Staying in shape is a good enough reason in itself to participate in athletics. But clubs are a good place to connect with people. (I see people talk shop in the locker room of the tennis club I attend!)
Why do many of these networking activities revolve around one's personal life? Isn't this an article about getting a job?
Good question. The answer has to do with the fact that the military and the private sector are fundamentally different kinds of organizations, with different processes and different approaches to staffing.
The military uses a structured system to staff its ranks; the private sector, on the other hand, fills its open positions in a less structured and sometimes an informal fashion.
In addition, while the military uses basic training to teach its culture and has its own proprietary schools to train service members, the private sector draws from people of diverse "work cultures," that is, work habits who are trained outside the organization in various schools, colleges and universities.
While the private sector approach has its advantages (much lower training costs, for example), it requires organizations to determine which candidates truly have the skills for the job and which ones have the work habits and goals similar to their own.
This is easy to do for entry-level positions but much harder to accomplish for senior level jobs.
In any event, to find a viable job candidate requires both the employer and job hunter to establish rapport or a relationship very quickly through a resume, a telephone call or a job interview. These vehicles don't give them much time to get to know each other.
Networking allows both parties to extend the time of this relationship-building exercise.
If you can network or nurture relationships in your personal life, you will be able to do the same in your business life or while search for a job, which makes you, no matter what your age, highly employable.
All opinions, advice, statements or other information expressed in this article are solely the author's and do not necessarily express the opinions of MilitaryHire.com or the publisher.
Copyright 2003 Randall Scasny. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed.