Not Over the Hill Yet!

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Michael Jackson loves going to the top of a big hill and then sliding down to the bottom. He does it all winter long, and he does it in the summer, too. In the good old days, he could do it at any time of any day he wanted. As owner of the world's largest all-weather artificial ski slope, located in Sheffield, England, Jackson was beyond the reach of seasons and weather. But after losing the business in 1991, Jackson found himself out of work and over 50. He spent two years nurturing his ailing father through Alzheimer's and then decided it was time to put his lifetime of experience back on the job market. But instead of full-time employment, he ended up bouncing from temporary position to temporary position. "I found that older people are often treated as bits of dirt," he says, "but paradoxically I also found that if I managed to get a job, the younger bosses would sometimes treat me like I was the boss."

That same paradox and some persuasive demographic figures are behind an employment agency with the whimsical name of Wrinklies Direct, which is one of a handful of companies trying to turn a profit on a service previously relegated to charities and government organizations: finding employment for older workers. The Hertfordshire-based company was started by Ray Hanks in 1997, a year after quadruple bypass heart surgery spooked the longtime advertising executive out of his agency job and into what he thought would be the more leisurely life of a consultant. Like Jackson, he found some doors closed due to his age, but he also found a bright side: "The more gray hairs I had, the higher my consultancy rates went." He developed a knack for marketing his age and experience, and then one day he read an article about the aging of Europe's workforce. "I'd already experienced firsthand what it was like to be an older man knocking on doors," he says. "I realized there was a growing supply of qualified older people who weren't being marketed properly, and that there were employers willing to pay for older workers if you could make the pitch."

One employer who listened to Hanks' pitch is Terry Mardlin, who owns Allsystems Document Preservation Services, a data management and retrieval company that was having trouble finding someone to sell a new product. "We had a fairly sophisticated document-scanning and retrieval software package, and we needed someone who could grasp the product technically and explain it to customers, and who would then be there for people after they bought it." He saw a Wrinklies ad last year and liked the motto: "Been there, done that, got the cardigan." Although his daughter, 23, wanted someone young and dynamic, Mardlin was sold on an older worker. "We'd already had a couple of youngsters who just wanted to sit at the computer all day," he says. "I figured someone like Michael Jackson is more vibrant than most people half his age." Once hired, Jackson showed he could absorb the required computer knowledge as well as anyone.

Hanks says the key to marketing older workers is to recognize both their strengths and their weaknesses. "We never claim older workers are better than younger ones," he explains. "It's just that they tend to work hard and be reliable and loyal, as opposed to someone just starting off, who's going to be hungry and ambitious and more likely to move if another opportunity comes along."

What's more, they're becoming a force to be reckoned with. The European Commission says that the number of workers between the ages of 20 and 29 will fall by 11 million, or 20%, during the period 1995-2015, while the number of people between 50 and 64 will increase by 16.5 million, or more than 25%. Over the next 20 years the population above the standard retirement age, 65 years, will increase by 17 million. "Companies are going to have to learn how to manage older workers, because there are going to be a lot more of them," Hanks says.

So far, his clients have been smaller companies like Mardlin's, which aren't bound by rigid hiring guidelines. "Age discrimination is a funny issue," says Hanks. "It's not like racism. People don't hate or distrust older workers, but discriminating against them is convenient because you can put a number on age, which makes it an easy screening criterion." He also says human resources people tend to be younger, which means they don't bond with older job candidates the way they do with younger ones. But once you put a qualified older worker in front of a decision maker, Hanks says they have just as good a chance of getting hired as anyone provided they fit the bill.

Now that he's developed a format, Hanks wants to start selling Wrinklies franchises. "You can't really say he's up and running until he gets franchises," says Patrick Grattan, head of London-based Third Age Employment Network, an organization launched two years ago to help regional agencies geared toward older workers coordinate their activities. The vast majority of the 100 or so members Grattan estimates a whopping 95% are charitable organizations. "There's no reason Ray Hanks shouldn't be able to make a go of this commercially as long as he does it alongside government programs that might do the less profitable business of retraining and educating," says Grattan. A competitor, Oxfordshire-based 40+ Recruitment Agency, has already sold nine franchises and in Lancashire there's another company called 40plus working to help older people start their own businesses. There are similar agencies in other countries. Uitzendbureau 65+ is a company in the Netherlands geared specifically to retired people who only want to work a few days a week, mostly to relieve boredom.

Hanks markets his recruits as value-added workers, but he also uses government incentive programs and low fees to make the sale easier. As a former employer himself, Jackson says it makes sense but cautions that the product sold must be the one delivered. "If you're going to hire one of us, you have to accept that we're going to walk instead of run," he says. "We're not out to be world beaters anymore, but we'll give you an honest day's work." After a life full of ups and downs, he says the only peaks and valleys he wants to see are those meant for skiing.