Older people searching for jobs have long fought back stereotypes that they lack the speed, technology skills and dynamism of younger applicants. But as a wave of baby boomers seeks to stay on the job later in life, some employers are finding older workers are precisely what they need.
"There's no experience like experience," said David Mintz, CEO of dairy-free products maker Tofutti, where about one-third of the workers are over 50. "I can't put an ad saying, `Older people wanted,' but there's no comparison."
Surveys consistently show older people believe they experience age discrimination on the job market, and although unemployment is lower among older workers, long-term unemployment is far higher. As the American population and its labor force reshape, though, with a larger chunk of older workers, some employers are slowly recognizing their skill and experience.
About 200 employers, from Google to AT&T to MetLife, have signed an AARP pledge recognizing the value of experienced workers and vowing to consider applicants 50 and older.
One of them, New York-based KPMG, has found success with a high proportion of older workers, who bring experience that the company says adds credibility. The auditing, tax and advisory firm says older workers also tend to be more dedicated to staying with the company, a plus for clients who like to build a relationship with a consultant they can count on to be around for years.
"Some Gen Ys and Millennials have this notion of, `I will have five jobs in 10 years,'" said Sig Shirodkar, a human resources executive at KPMG. "We're looking for ways to tame that beast."
Many employers find older workers help them connect with older clients. At the Vermont Country Store in Rockingham, Vt., the average customer is now in their 60s, and about half of the business' 400 workers are over 50, coming from a range of professional backgrounds, often outside retail. "Having folks internally that are in the same demographic certainly helps to create credibility and to have empathy for our customer," said Chris Vickers, the store's chief executive.
One such employee is 60-year-old Ashley Roland, who got a marketing job at the Vermont Country Store last year after the company she previously worked for shut down. She dreaded the thought of a marathon of unsuccessful interviews, but the store ended up recruiting her.
"When I was being hired, I didn't feel any kind of concern about my age," she said. "I believe in experience. I think you're crazy not to hire someone who's older."
Even when the customers themselves might not be seniors, employers find older adults bring a level of life experience that helps them in their work. About 20 percent of the roughly 26,000 customer service, sales and technical support agents working for Miramar, Fla.-based Arise Virtual Solutions are 50 or older, and chief executive John Meyer said they often find ways to connect with the caller on the other end of the line.
"Having someone who is more senior, who has had some life scars, makes them much better at interacting with people," Meyer said. "This is a chance for them to use the skills that they have built up over their life."
The embrace of older workers by some companies comes as the country's demographics shift and a greater number of people stay on the job later in life, some because of personal choice, others out of necessity after their retirement savings took a hit during the recession. Between 1977 and 2007, employment of workers 65 and older doubled, a trend that has stayed on track and is projected to continue as the massive baby boom generation moves toward old age. But long-term unemployment has plagued older adults: Nearly half of those 55 and older who find themselves jobless remain out of work for 27 weeks or more.
Many companies still tend to overlook older applicants. Peter Cappelli, a University of Pennsylvania professor who co-authored "Managing the Older Worker," said because the economy has remained relatively weak and demand for jobs has been so high, many employers haven't been pressed to directly recruit older individuals.
Stereotypes have prevailed. Hiring managers often still view older applicants as having lower job performance, higher absenteeism and accident rates, and less ability to solve problems and adapt to changes. But Capelli said research has found older workers outpace younger ones in nearly every metric. And in jobs where age might be a detriment - say, a highly physical job beyond a particular older person's ability - seniors tend to exclude themselves from applying in the first place.
"The evidence is overwhelming that they're better," Cappelli said. "But the hiring managers are just going with their guts, and our guts are full of prejudice."
Paul Lugo, 69, of Kendall Lakes, Fla., has felt that prejudice. After decades of work in business development and customer service at various companies, Lugo found himself unemployed about two years ago. He needs the money, but no one wants to hire him.
"I've been to every mall, I've gone to the TSA, I've gone through thousands of applications," he said, "but I get the same thing: `Don't call us, we'll call you.'"
Lugo relies on occasional jobs as an extra in movies and television shows to supplement his Social Security check. He has even offered on job interviews to work for free for a week to prove he's worth hiring, but no one has taken him up on it.
"With my experience, I've learned so much," he said. "As a senior citizen, I have a lot to contribute to a company if they allow me, but they never give me a chance."
But older workers are just what Michelle Benjamin, CEO of TalentREADY, a New York-based consulting firm, is looking for. She holds open houses specifically aimed at recruiting them. About three-quarters of the company's senior employees are over 50. They often cost more to hire, Benjamin said, but they don't require much training or supervision, and end up paying for themselves with the quality of work.
"Clients are paying us to get to the bottom line really quickly," she said.
Mintz admits his own age, 82, fuels his support of older workers. But he echoes Capelli, saying he sees daily proof among the older individuals he has hired at Cranford, N.J.-based Tofutti: Fewer absences, fewer mistakes, a greater ability to solve problems and a willingness to put in more hours.
Though workers in highly physical warehouse jobs at his company skew younger, and older employees are not as adept in technology driven roles, Mintz says overall their experience pays off.
"They're loaded with knowledge," he said. "They can teach the young whippersnappers."