Just as we’re being told we have to keep working for longer, the skills and experience offered by mature workers in the veterinary profession are finally being recognised. By John Burfitt
It was former Treasurer Joe Hockey who a few years ago announced Australians will soon be expected to work until 70 before they’re eligible for the age pension.
He also explained that older workers were a necessity in the workforce to keep the economy running, with all the anticipated changes due to our ageing population.
This concept is hardly foreign, as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Labour Force report in 2015 revealed most people now expect to work until they are 70.
That’s all very well, but the questions emerge—will they be able to find jobs? Will employers be willing to take them on?
When it comes to employment strategies regarding mature workers within the Australian veterinary profession, it appears to be a conversation that scares some.
In researching this story, five professional veterinary bodies, key employment agencies and consultants either ignored repeated requests or refused to take part. “It’s an issue we would rather not touch,” was the comment from one industry spokesperson. The silence of the others made as much of an impression.
At the launch of the 2016 ‘Willing to Work’ report, Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan said, “Because of discrimination, Australian businesses are missing out on the range of skills and abilities older people and people with a disability have to offer. At the individual level, attitudes and beliefs need to change.”
Janet Murray is a board member of the Veterinary Nurses Council, and says embracing a diversity of ages and skills in the modern vet practice is an essential.
“Mature workers can become the pillars in a practice and can be totally underrated in their ability to be involved in something that interests them,” Murray says. “Older generations can be an asset to a practice.
“This age group has life skills younger ones don’t, and could be useful as life coaches and mentors to younger workers. You often find someone over 50 has dealt with many issues already and may handle a situation better due to, ‘having seen it all before’.”
There remains, however, a wide range of assumptions about skills that can lead to age discrimination when hiring.
With Australia’s workforce ageing and some industries facing skills shortages, buying into stereotypes could come at a heavy cost to employers.
The Australian Human Rights Commission reported that 27 per cent of people over the age of 50 reported experiencing age discrimination in work. In response, the Commission’s Mature Workers publication tackles head on some of the myths and facts.
One myth was mature workers cost too much. The report found, however, that workers aged over 55 are five times less likely to change jobs compared with workers aged 20-24, delivering an average net benefit of $1,956 per year to their employer compared to the rest of the workforce. That’s a result of increased retention, lower rates of absenteeism, decreased costs of recruitment and greater investment return on training.
Another myth involving mature workers not being able to adapt to changes and new technology was confronted, with ABS data showing Australians aged 55-64 are the fastest growing users of information technology.
“Mature workers … may be ready for a longer-term commitment rather than seeing a position as a stepping stone. They clearly have also had the opportunity to develop more advanced skills—for example, in surgery.”—Dr Lindsay Hay, Baulkham Hills Veterinary Hospital, Sydney
Dr Lindsay Hay of the Baulkham Hills Veterinary Hospital in Sydney calls his team “a mature one”, with two vets over 50, and three others over 40.
“For a range of reasons, there’s a value in having a diverse group of people in the team, and mature people who are baby boomers or generation X will balance the interests and culture of those who are gen Y,” Dr Hay explains.
“Mature workers can bring significant skills and attributes to the table without presenting younger people in any way inferior, and that is the challenge when building a team.”
He adds that mature workers may often stay in a position longer. “They may be ready for a longer-term commitment rather than seeing a position as a stepping stone. They clearly have also had the opportunity to develop more advanced skills—for example, in surgery.
“They may also be at a stage of family life where they are more settled—the kids are older and at school, the partner’s career position is solid—and be more confident in their approach to clinical cases.”
A recent study by recruitment consultants Chorus Executive revealed 60 per cent of candidates would be willing to take a drop in salary to work for an organisation where they felt inspired.
“We are finding more employees aged 50-plus are willing to sacrifice money for the right role,” Chorus Executive managing director Christine Khor says.
“What’s more important to older workers is the challenge and opportunity of the role, along with the values and culture of the organisation.”
Dr Sam Kovac is the owner of Sydney’s Southern Cross Veterinary Clinic, and says of his staff of 35, four are over 45 years of age. He says that hiring for personality, skills and the fit into the culture of a practice needs to be the far more important determining factor than the age of a candidate.
“There really needs to be a focus on the personality type before any question regarding age,” he says. “But I do think a lot of mature workers have much better suited personalities for certain roles.
“Take, for instance, common sense. You can’t teach that, it’s something that needs to be learned. I have a receptionist who’s over 45 and she has so much common sense and street smarts that can cope with any situation.”
As for any preference shown by clients in dealing with practitioners of a certain age, Dr Lindsay Hay believes a practice team should reflect the range of clients coming in through the doors.
“There is real value when facing the customers for an age-diverse group, as well as being diverse in a range of other ways as well, because your clients are a varied group as well,” he says.
Dr Kovac adds, “Some clients actually do prefer younger vets, who might be armed with the newest information right out of vet school, while others prefer to see older doctors who have had longer clinical experience.
“I’ve asked some clients why they prefer the younger doctors, and they respond they believe their knowledge is more up to date. But if a mature vet has kept up with all their continuing education, they have the same opportunity to know the gold standard.
“Older or younger, that’s why I encourage continuing education in all my team, to remain relevant—and ultimately, highly employable.”