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SA's older workers struggle to find their place

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As South Australia’s economy attempts a painful transition from old to new industries, older workers are struggling to find their place, reports Max Opray.

John Gower wanted to work at Holden until he retired, but when he found out half his 12-person team would have to be let go, the 58 year-old reluctantly put his hand up.

The gravelly-voiced maintenance fitter had worked at Holden since 2003 and in similar jobs his whole life, but eight weeks ago found himself out in the marketplace starting afresh.

“I figured I was going to be one of the ones who was going to end up going anyway, so thought I’d make it easier,” he said.

What hasn’t been easy is finding a new job. Non-for-profits helping such workers say it is tough enough for mature-aged workers to get a look in at the best of times, let alone in an economic climate where unemployment has just hit eight per cent and rising – with the full impact of Holden’s impending closure still to come.

Premier Jay Weatherill has warned unemployment could get worse, as the state transitions from what he calls the “old economy” of blue collar manufacturing to a smart new economy of innovative production.

But what will happen to men previously employed in traditional manufacturing jobs? Can they make the transition?

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics Labour Force statistics show female unemployment is relatively steady, but male full time jobs are being shed disproportionately, reflecting a particular decline in bloke-dominated manufacturing roles like Gower’s old job.

“Obviously at my age I wanted to stay, I do get a bit down sometimes with the way the market is but I suppose you’ve just got to get on with it,” Gower told InDaily.

Gower got in touch with DOME, an employment and training non-for-profit that focuses on mature-age workers. He said the jobs on offer through the organisation for someone of his skill set were few and far between.

“I’m not fussy, I just a want reasonable job – it seems like there is a lot of casual and part-time work, maybe I’ve just been working too long and don’t know what it’s like out there,” he said.

Using DOME and regular job search organisations like Seek, Gower has struggled to get a look in on the jobs that are available. He believes that while not having the right experience might be a factor with some roles, his age might also be coming into play.

“Maybe it holds you back, but it’s not as if I’m over the hill – at this age they don’t sort of want to know you,” he said.

DOME executive director Greg Goudie – who used to work in the auto manufacturing sector himself – said his organisation was being overwhelmed by interest from people like Gower, and that plenty of them had expressed frustration with the dearth of jobs on offer.

The federal and state-funded non-for-profit has been around since 1981, and Goudie claimed that for most of its history there have been about 1200 people registered as jobseekers at any one time, but that in the last three years the number has nearly doubled as more people register and fewer manage to find work.

“There’s certainly an expectation we’ll be able to find everyone a job, but the number of people looking for work right now and the number of jobs just don’t line up,” he said.

Goudie said his organisation had a targeted course for mature-aged women who had been out of work for extended periods, but with a particularly prominent rise in the number of men registering, DOME is now offering another targeted training program for men. This course aims to improve the business administration skills of blue collar men, so they can shift from a physical role into an office environment while making the most of their prior experience of what happens out on the floor.

Goudie said the Holden workers in particular had transferrable skills they didn’t even think about.

“Being with a big company, many of them have been trained in occupational health and safety, workplace efficiency skills – they sometimes aren’t documented as qualifications, but they are very valuable to a small business that simply can’t afford to provide the training,” he said.

Goudie said the biggest companies tended to be the ones most guilty of filtering out mature-aged applicants, while many small businesses had sought DOME out to access older workers, on account of the additional skills and experience they bring to the table.

One such company is surgical equipment firm Dynek. Training and development manager Martin Fynnaart said he was well acquainted with DOME as the agency were the ones that helped him get the job in the first place, after he’d been stuck in unemployment for five years.

At the age of 55 he was feeling despondent about his changes, but DOME spruced up his lengthy resume and rebuilt his confidence by roping him in as a volunteer contacting applicants on their database.

Now 64, he’s worked his way up from a phone consultancy role to a management position at Dynek. He knows the skills older people can bring – as well as how hard it is for them to find work.

DOME offers assistance to anyone over the age of 40, however Goudie said it was only in recent years that people in that 40-45 age bracket began to register. Seven years ago they had four workers register in that age group, while in the last year they’ve had 300.

He said these middle-aged people were experiencing treatment from recruiters that used to be limited to people in their late fifties and older.

“Age discrimination is happening to younger and younger people,” he said.

“[Some people advise] to only put 15 years of experience on your resume, otherwise recruiters will think you’re a dinosaur – do the math, you’d be under 40!”

SACOSS executive director Ross Womersley said SA’s aging population meant that economic contraction would result in more and more unemployed experiencing age discrimination first-hand.

“There’s still a large amount of casual ageism – older unemployed people seen as being less attractive for many employers, it may even be an unconscious thing,” he said.

Womersley applauded the Federal Government for introducing the Restart wage subsidy initiative last year to tackle the problem, although he expressed concern that employers would take the incentive payment for hiring mature-aged workers and not keep them on long-term.

The length of the $10,000 wage subsidy was reduced from 24 months to 12 months in the 2015-16 budget.

 

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