Joe sat across the table from me with determined look on his face. He was a compelling candidate all around: experienced, confident, and talented. He had already spent years climbing the corporate ladder and had proven himself in positions of leadership. He knew how to solve the critical problems and arrive at the solutions that could win clients and build partnerships. But the architectural firms that presented the best fit wouldn’t even consider him. The problem: he’s 50.
Over the years I’ve worked with many Joe’s (and Jane’s)- extremely talented and experienced people in their 50’s who are actively looking for mid and senior level positions. While many of them may be exceptional individuals, they are by no means exceptions to the rule. But when they try to convince hiring teams of their value, they just hit a brick wall. Though they may have proven themselves while working for other firms, now they can’t even get their foot in the door.
I find this attitude surprising given that the most celebrated names in architecture are in their 60’s and 70’s. Think: Philip Cox, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, et al. Architecture and design is also a sector that requires a maturity of creative thinking and the ability to see the potential pitfalls and bottlenecks before they happen. These qualities come with age and experience.
There is No Substitute for Experience
But, the reality is that many firms these days are reluctant to hire older workers in favour of those in their 20’s, 30’s and early 40’s. I suspect that there are a few motivations behind this attitude. Here is perhaps the top three:
1. Some employers believe that older workers will not be so nimble or easy to train.This is especially true if the position involves working with cutting edge or constantly updating technology. While this may be a valid concern, the candidate’s ability to adapt to new technologies and experiences will likely be evident in his or her previous work. But candidates need to provide suitable evidence of this adaptability (more on this in my next article). On the other side of the table, the hiring team should spend a sufficient amount of time investigating the candidate’s background and references.
2. They think older workers are more expensive. This added cost takes on several forms: 1) many older workers want higher salaries commensurate with their level of experience and expertise; 2) older workers may not be as productive and may take more sick leave; 3) the company may not get so many years out of the older employee before he or she retires.
What these factors really boil down to is the long-term goals and values of the company. Younger workers tend to make more mistakes; they may be less committed to the company and its values, and more likely to leave for an apparently better opportunity elsewhere. The firms that are committed to excellence and long-term winning strategies will always prefer experience, maturity, and tenacity over a cheap salary, since they want the best for their clients.
3. They want to promote people from within. I’ve mentioned in an earlier article that the longevity of a company depends having the systems in place to recognise and reward top performers, encourage professional and personal development, and allow for employee advancement across divisions and leadership levels. While it makes sense to groom people from within, it’s a long-term strategy that can take several years, and there is always the risk that the person will leave the company along the way.
Hiring older people with 20+ years of experience, who can immediately start in a senior level position has several advantages. These people are less likely to run off and get married. They don’t need maternity leave or have to take off time to care for their small children. They are also more likely to work collaboratively with others instead of stepping on people in order to climb the corporate ladder.
The bottom line is that there is real value in the experience and maturity that older workers tend to bring with them, and it is typically worth much more than the cost.