Australia

Older people in Australia want to be part of today's workforce, despite coronavirus challenges

Systems analyst Hitesh Joshi is looking for a job. Source: SBS News

The federal government has been pushing mature workers to ‘skill up’, but ageism remains widespread. Despite the coronavirus crisis now impacting the jobs market, these Australians say they're keen to offer their services.

After nearly eight weeks immersed in digital literacy, and mock interviews, jobseekers at the Sarina Russo Job Access centre in western Sydney have all the answers, at least to the stock interview questions.

“I’ve learned so much,“ says 45-year-old systems analyst Hitesh Joshi during a break from one of the group training sessions.   

He and the other participants – all aged 45 and over - are trying to remain hopeful about employment, despite challenges including the coronavirus pandemic, which would see the in-person training sessions cancelled soon after SBS News visited. 

Among the hurdles openly discussed in the session is ageism, whether direct or unconscious.

Domestic worker Kim Amos, 46, who first tried to enter the workforce 13 years ago after raising children, feels she has suffered blatant age discrimination.

Kim Amos
Kim Amos has struggled to find work.
SBS News

“I’ve tried applying for a job doing bush regeneration, and I was told they don’t hire people my age. If I was 16 to 24, not a problem,” she says.

“Another time, I saw a job advertised, I went in to hand in my résumé, and was pretty much told straight out that, ‘I'm sorry, we're looking for juniors’. It wasn't stated on the board that it was a junior position."

Such an attitude from employers lags government policy. 

Skilling up - and working longer - have been encouraged by the federal government, which has described Australia’s ageing population as an “economic timebomb”, adding to the strain on the health, aged care and pension systems.

Over the past five years, the workforce participation rate for those aged 65 and over has risen from 12.3 per cent to 14.6 per cent, as the government moves to raise the pension eligibility age to 67 by the year 2023.

“It’s not about forcing people to stay in the workforce,” said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, in a speech made last year to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, “but rather, giving them the opportunity and the choice to pursue lifelong learning and skills training if they so choose”.

At the time, he was accused by one seniors group of unintentionally engaging in ageism by blaming older Australians for the government's financial issues, though other organisations welcomed the government’s stance as economically necessary. 

Addressing the skills gap

In a recent survey of more than 2,000 employees across some 1,500 organisations, many respondents aged over 55 complained of fewer opportunities for skills development, limited knowledge transfer between age groups, and limited flexibility of work arrangements to allow for home responsibilities such as caring for elderly parents or grandchildren. 

Nearly half of the 35 to 44 year olds polled in the Mature Workers in Organisations study, conducted by UNSW's Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research, believed "older workers should retire on time to make way for the next generation". 

“That’s an understandable response, but it’s based on an incorrect assumption,” says the report’s co-lead author Professor Sharon Parker of Perth’s Curtin University.

“If we don’t find ways to keep mature workers in the workforce longer, then we’re really setting up a huge burden for young workers because they’ve got to generate all the productivity and funding needed to sustain a very large and growing population of older people.” 

Professor Parker says while many professional organisations aren’t yet moving in the right direction, a positive example is national hardware chain Bunnings, where 16 per cent of staff are aged between 46 and 56, and 19 per cent are over 56.  

According to the company’s human resources director Jacqui Coombs, mature age workers “can impress customers with their product knowledge and advice on DIY projects." 

“Informal mentoring is fantastic training and development,” she said.  

The study of mature age workers urges employers to redesign jobs to reduce the physical demands of manual work and to re-train mature workers to adapt to changing work requirements.

At the Sarina Russo Job Access centre, the training enjoyed by systems analyst Mr Joshi is free through the federal government-subsidised Career Transitions Assistance program.

Hitesh Joshi
Hitesh Joshi is doing everything he can to keep up with the modern working world.
SBS News

A master's degree in 1999 has left Mr Joshi struggling to break into the fast-changing IT field recently, so he is on a path to upskilling, both in newer IT technologies and in the intricacies of how job hunting now works.

“I learned how to customise my résumé as per the job application and how to target the keywords the employer is looking for, through applicant tracking systems," he says. "And I improved my confidence”.  

Michael Pennisi is Sarina Russo’s NSW Manager. 

“There are certain employers with preconceptions about mature age candidates, but others really value the experience, the reliability, the fact they've got a skill set that's under-utilised, and if given the opportunity, they'll be more reliable than many millennials and others who are looking for the next step in their careers,” he said.

“If you give someone an opportunity when no-one has before, you'll find they give back tenfold.”

Adapting to coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic is now forcing Australia's vocational training sector to either suspend courses or put them online.

That is set to pose extra challenges for older jobseekers, many of whom struggle with digital literacy.

The fear is that it will also make the challenges of finding a job even harder.

"If it isn't a priority, they won't start hiring, until this outbreak is over," Mr Joshi says. 

Sarina Russo's chief executive Kathleen Newcombe says digital literacy will become even more critical if Australia's unemployment rate continues to rise. 

"For older workers, it's always been a challenge dealing with the digital age, and I think after COVID-19, life has changed forever," she says. 

"We are more and more reliant, through home working, through creating our own businesses at home - we are going to need these skills."

But, Ms Newcombe says, some of the new roles being created to deal with the crisis would suit older Australians.

"Mature workers, often with their maturity, capability and wisdom, are perfect for those contact centre roles, where at the moment, there's so much demand," she says. 

"Also in the care industry. So once we get through the peak of the health crisis, we are going to still need a very resilient workforce, including in the care sector, to look after our community."

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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