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Why Some Older Executives Land Jobs—and Others Don't

By Perri Capell

Why do some over-50 job hunters struggle to find jobs, while others seem to have little trouble attracting offers? Surprisingly, recruiters say it has less to do with candidates' wrinkles or gray hairs, and more to do with their corporate experience and the direction of their career path.

Hiring managers and recruiters claim they prefer older, more experienced executives over youthful ones, so long as their backgrounds fit the openings and they demonstrate enthusiasm and energy.

"I don't claim to be completely blind to age, but I love executives over 50," says Mark Jaffe, president of Wyatt & Jaffe, a Minneapolis recruiting firm. If asked to choose between a 50- and a 40-year-old, Mr. Jaffe says he'd likely recommend the 50-year-old as long as the candidate is "still hungry" and has a high energy level. In making decisions about older candidates, their past experience typically speaks for itself, he says.

"We don't have to guess what they're worth," says Mr. Jaffe. "They're either 'The Real McCoy' or they aren't."

Yet numerous job hunters say that landing a new position becomes harder after they turn 50. Many older candidates believe their difficulty in the job market is due to age discrimination. If age discrimination hits at 50—or even younger—why are some 50-plus candidates avidly recruited to new roles? In an effort to understand why some mature candidates are more attractive to employers than others, CareerJournal.com interviewed older job hunters, recruiters and hiring managers.

The Right Age and Stage

The most successful older candidates are those with histories of progressively increasing responsibility in specific functions, say recruiters. By the time they reach their 50s, they typically are senior managers with a long list of significant accomplishments.

"The successful person over age 50 has reached a level of experience in his career that is commensurate with where he's supposed to be," says Ted Martin, president and chief executive officer of recruiter Martin Partners in Chicago. At this point, he says, "you need to be competing for senior leadership slots or top functional leadership positions, such as the head of marketing and sales or a general-manager, chief-executive-officer role."

Less successful over-50 job seekers haven't reached that level and are now competing for openings against 30- and 40-year-olds, who typically earn less, may be more technically competent or exude more energy. "If you are over age 50 and at a vice president, director, or project-manager level, you are going to have a fight on your hands, because the competition is tough," says Mr. Martin.

Employers Need Experience

Employers appreciate age especially when facing difficult challenges, says Al Garcia, a former executive recruiter and now a senior human-resources executive based in Temple, Texas. Age discrimination may seem to be at work when an older candidate is competing against a younger person for "a younger person's job, but not for jobs he should have risen to," says Mr. Garcia, who has been an international HR vice president for Dole Foods Co. and is now vice president of administration for Sagus International LLC, a large Chicago-based schools-furniture manufacturer.

Sagus recently hired three 50-plus managers to work at its Texas facility: a chief financial officer, a maintenance group executive and a first-line supervisor. For financial roles in particular, candidates with some "snow on the roof" are desirable because such people have highly valued experience, says Mr. Garcia.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, many companies are trying to hire experienced older executives, says Michael Walsh, president and CEO of Actify Inc., a developer of CAD-file sharing software. Mr. Walsh should know; the 58-year-old is one of them. Last year, while considering offers to run two other companies, he was recruited to head San Francisco-based Actify.

"Having a little gray hair doesn't hurt," says Mr. Walsh. "In fact, it helps because companies are looking for people who have been through it."

Mr. Walsh previously was North American president and corporate vice president for Navigation Technologies, a developer of route-guidance-map databases. In July 2001, when the company decided to consolidate in the Chicago area, Mr. Walsh opted to accept a golden parachute and seek another job.

Industry Switchers Struggle

Switching industries or functions sometimes sets executives back in their careers so that by age 50, they haven't reached senior management ranks. Moreover, if they are trying to change career fields, recruiters and hiring executives may struggle to see "a fit" regardless of earlier successes. "The job market assumes that your most recent position represents your most recent and best informed decision of what you want to do and your competency," says Douglas B. Richardson, an executive coach and career consultant in Narberth, Pa.

Some mature candidates believe this way of viewing candidates is nothing more than age discrimination. Federal laws prohibit employers from discriminating against candidates on the basis of age. However, employers are entitled to consider any factor that supports evidence of a candidate's competence or motivation, says Mr. Richardson. (Mr. Richardson is a columnist for CareerJournal.com.)

"Anything that casts these issues in doubt—namely, whether you're good enough and want the job badly enough—will cause you to lose out to someone whose evidence suggests more competency or motivation," he says.

Robert O'Leary, 51, rose steadily in the public-relations field to become general manager of global affairs for Mobil Corp. for four years until its merger with Exxon. He was vice president of public relations and advertising for Unisys Corp. and had senior PR positions during 11 years at International Business Machines and United Technologies Corp. After stepping down from Mobil in 2000, he spent two years thinking about his next career move while serving on community and professional boards, consulting and investing in several businesses.

While attending a board meeting for a professional group in January 2002, he mentioned to other directors that he itched to return to the corporate world. One passed his name to an executive recruiter who was seeking candidates for a senior vice president, global communications, assignment for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio. Mr. O'Leary was recruited for the role and now reports to Goodyear's chairman and CEO.

"I had the experience that matched up well with what they needed," says Mr. O'Leary. "It was a function of them asking if my experience and accomplishments were relevant, and that should be the measure of any candidate."

Compensation Concerns

Compensation plays a part, of course. By the time they reach 50, many executives are earning six figures. If they're competing against younger candidates, companies may be reluctant to hire them because a younger person often can come on board for less.

"I was making a little over $100,000 in my last job," says Doug Smith, a 55-year-old former senior vice president and credit officer for a community bank in Philadelphia who was laid off in October. "You could buy two kids earning $50,000 for the price of me."

Some over-50 candidates volunteer to accept less pay for jobs they could do easily, usually because they've already done them before. Usually, though, they're told they're overqualified. The reason older executives don't get such jobs? Simply because "companies don't believe them" when they say they'd willingly take pay cuts, says William Morin, a pioneer of the outplacement industry who now runs an executive-coaching firm in New York.

"If you told me you'd take an associate manager's job for $35,000 a year, I wouldn't hire you because I don't think it's true that you'd be willing to work at that low level," says Mr. Morin, chairman and CEO of WJM Associates Inc.

'Fire in the Belly'

Some older job seekers struggle because they don't show enough enthusiasm, energy and commitment to learning—something employers call "fire in the belly." One senior staffing professional at a Fortune 500 company says her firm values maturity and experience, but older job hunters who don't seem flexible or interested in continuous learning won't get hired, she says.

For Mr. O'Leary, being on the sidelines for two years reminded him of his passion for public relations, which he says was obvious when he interviewed for his current role. "If you have that passion, you ought to show it," he says. "If you don't, you'll miss the boat completely."

What About Looks?

When mature candidates can't land new jobs, they often believe it's because they look old. They wonder if they should take steps to change their appearance. Surprisingly, hiring managers don't bring up this issue when asked about the differences between successful and unsuccessful 50-plus job hunters. Some successful candidates say they don't try to look younger than they are. For instance, Mr. O'Leary says he doesn't try to disguise his age in any way. "That would be a pretense," he says.

"I've never been concerned someone wouldn't hire me because I look old," says Mr. Walsh, who exercises regularly, is an avid snow skier and tennis player and races sailboats.

Seven Strategies

If you're 50-plus and have been pounding the pavement for months, what's the solution? Recruiters and hiring managers say the following approaches and shifts in thinking may be helpful:

Realize the situation isn't hopeless. As baby boomers mature, companies are more inclined to hire older executives than most once were, says Jean-Louis Alpeyrie, a senior partner with executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles in New York. Studies showing that older employees tend to be more loyal, detail oriented and reliable than younger people are helping to change attitudes, he says.

Consider company size and type. Consider what you can achieve and go after it. If you're a 50-plus mid-level executive, you'll have better luck finding a role at a small company than at a large company, says Mr. Garcia. "The larger the organization, the more difficult it will be for you to join it," he says. "But you might be able to replicate your job at a smaller company."

Mr. Richardson notes that small firms or those in transformational or cutting-edge businesses, such as the Internet, place less emphasis on age and organizational levels. "I tell older job hunters to look for companies that don't automatically key where you're supposed to be on the organizational chart to age," he says.

Be the solution. Mr. Garcia notes that companies "don't hire people, they hire solutions." You'll have more success if you show how your skills can solve problems than by asking to be hired because you have a list of impressive titles, he says.

"General Electric Co., where I worked before, wouldn't hire me as a director of HR, but they might hire me as a recruiter because I could solve that problem for them, and they wouldn't have to groom me for the next job," he says.

Create a resume that makes you seem active and accomplished. Group your earliest positions under one general category of early experience, says Mr. Morin. When describing more recent jobs on your resume, say what you accomplished and contributed rather than citing experiences, he says.

Stay abreast of technology. H. Thomas Bryant was recruited away from the CEO role at StairMaster Sports/Medical Inc. in Kirkland, Wash., last year to become president and chief operating officer of Tempur-World, a mattress company in Lexington, Ky. During the past 11 years, Mr. Bryant, 53, has been a president or CEO of several companies. He says he's never experienced age discrimination and believes older candidates are valuable if their experience matches the available position. "I try to stay up with technology," he says, "because we all know it's changing every day." Additionally, for health reasons, he stays in shape physically.

Be positive. Employers want to hire people with upbeat attitudes. Ask questions about the company or challenge instead of talking about yourself, Mr. Jaffe suggests. "A lot of my friends and colleagues who are jobless become negative," says Mr. Garcia. "They start saying, 'I'm too old.' I tell them if they act like that in the interview, employers will see they're negative and think it's because of the job. They're sending the wrong message and they won't get hired."

Stay or pay them back. If employers don't believe you'll work for less pay, volunteer to sign a contract saying you'll stay with an employer for a certain number of years or else pay back part of your salary, Mr. Martin suggests.

Mr. Richardson suggests asking to have your pay package structured so that most of your compensation is in the form of incentives based on performance. The package could be re-evaluated after you prove your worth, he says.

Ms. Capell is a senior correspondent for CareerJournal.com. She can be reached at frances.capell@dowjones.com.

http://www.careerjournal.com/myc/fifty/20021107-capell.html

 

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