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Who’s too old?

Farm families know that age diversity makes them stronger. But did you know that a spread of ages in your employees adds strength too?

Diversity in the workforce is a good thing, but diversity doesn’t mean just diversity of gender or ethnicity. It also means age diversity. Increasingly, older workers aren’t retiring gracefully to play golf and potter in the garden. Instead, they are making a conscious decision to change careers later in life, when the experience and skills they bring can be a potential goldmine for employers across all industries.

“It used to be that when people neared retirement age they were supposed to retire, but that’s no longer the case,” says Tracy Biernacki-Dusza with the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC). “A lot of people can’t retire for economic reasons, and there are very few industries anymore that have big retirement packages.”

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Family portrait standing in front of a red barn on the farm.

Our parents often had a job for life that they retired from, but today people change jobs more frequently. No one thinks anything about making multiple career changes in the course of their lifetime, says Biernacki-Dusza. “That’s not a bad thing, because they are continuously learning new things that they can apply into something else.”

Third-quarter career seekers

There is definitely a trend towards more people seeking second- or third-quarter careers than there used to be, and a big factor is that people are healthier and living longer and more productive lives than they used to.

“They may wake up one day and be 65 and have no idea how that happened since they have more creativity, experience and wisdom than they did at 35, and have no intention of quitting anytime soon,” says Sue Barkman, former president and CEO of Third Quarter, a non-profit organization that matches companies needing experienced and skilled employees with people over 45 looking for second- or third-quarter careers based on their experience.

“The creative and curious people keep learning and very often are able to find their niche,” Barkman says.

  • Read more: Is agriculture ageist?

Barkman says from her experience there are a lot of people in the 55 to 62 age bracket who feel encouraged to change careers and pursue something they have always wanted to do.

“Often people want to start a business or a passion project, or even just work in a more entry level job in a new industry,” she says. “The ‘disruptors’ in this age group are generally well educated and have had 20-plus years of experience in a profession such as banking, accounting or medical and want to apply that knowledge to something else. They are generally ready for something new but need encouragement or assistance in finding the right path.”

But older workers wanting to re-enter the workforce struggle with similar issues that affect first-time job hunters, and they also have some unique challenges, like blind spots as to how the system works in 2017.

“Some people have been working for over 30 years, often for the same company, and have no idea how to apply or network for a new career or job,” says Barkman. “We spent a lot of time working with the candidates on how to navigate the system; how to build a resume (not the same as formatting a resume), and how to package their skills, talents and experience to form a business case for the job or industry they are looking to move into.”

Older workers often need to brush up on their information technology skills as well, including basic things like how to apply for jobs online, and how to use social media and sites like LinkedIn to promote themselves and search for opportunities.

It can also be difficult for older workers to relate to the very different expectations, aspirations and outlook of younger generations.

“There is often low emotional intelligence with people who have been working for a long time as senior managers with the same company,” says Barkman. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a measure of a person’s ability for self-awareness, empathy and dealing sensitively with other people. “They may not have been required to worry about leadership issues or the EQ of younger generations, which will often show in the interview process.”

Encouraging more older workers in agriculture

ThirdQuarter actually closed its doors in March when a three-year federal grant to fund its operations ran out.

By that time its staff had worked with over 57,000 people and more than 21,000 had been on interviews, received job offers or were close to filling new roles. “We applied hands-on search, sourcing techniques and technology to help us, but our peer-to-peer approach is what worked,” says Barkman.

Quite a number of ThirdQuarter’s job seekers have ended up in new agricultural careers with implement dealers, crop input retailers, food processors, marketing boards, grain and feed mills and trucking, and as managers of large farming operations and in agricultural banking.

Barkman feels agriculture could still do a better job of promoting itself to mature job seekers. “Many people do not even think of agriculture when pursuing their next career, or understand the wide variety of opportunities in this industry,” she says. “I had many conversations with the Canadian Association of Agricultural Retailers which represents the ag-retail sector in Canada. They have been particularly concerned about over 20,000-plus jobs that are going to be vacant in this sector unless they can recruit people into the roles.”

Barkman believes members of the ag sector should really have a roundtable with some frank discussion on how to attract, recruit and retain employees for their needs. To date, her experience is that ag employers tend to be passive with recruitment. In other words, they do nothing to “sell” the opportunities.

But that may be beginning to change.

“Agriculture is waking up,” Barker says. “They need more skilled workers, and they have to make themselves more accessible to mature job seekers and make them aware of the opportunities.”

Still, the change won’t always be easy, partly because many farms are reluctant to commit to employee training since the farmers themselves retire late (and sometimes not at all), and also because farm succession is often a gradual transition from one generation to the next, with the two generations overlapping.

But the fact remains that there is a huge labour gap in agriculture that continues to grow, and many feel that older workers could be the perfect fit for some of those gaps.

“Older workers are needed and they’re valuable, and employers need to think about the bigger picture and include older workers in their search for filling positions because of their varied skill set,” says Biernacki-Dusza. “Diversity creates a stronger team. I know a lot of companies, especially when they are dealing with millennials, want to keep some of the older workers on board because they end up playing a mentoring role. It’s often the same deal with a farm.”

On the other side of the coin, older workers need to be encouraged to participate. “Many seem to think there’s an ending and then you stop. People think if they are in their upper 50s and they lose their job, they’ll never get another one,” says Biernacki-Dusza. “They need to go in with the attitude that they have lots to share and are willing to share it.”

The challenge in agriculture, particularly, is to get older workers who have been involved in different industry sectors to understand that they have skills which are transferable to a farm or agricultural business. “There are so many pieces in agriculture,” says Biernacki-Duzsa. “The problem is identifying the skills that people have, and helping them to understand they can correlate to agriculture.”


Agriculture as template

There’s a lot that’s unique about agriculture, including that farmers tend to retire late and that they excel at mentoring the next generation as it comes along. So, are there lessons other industry sectors could maybe learn from agriculture to make the most of the experience and skills of mature employees?

“Absolutely,” says Sue Barkman, former president and CEO of Third Quarter. “The family farm is the ideal model because it encourages all generations to work together, learn together and forget the disrespectful jokes and bias that start to build resentments in the traditional workplace.”

“There is no silo mentality, and this is what gets things done,” Barkman adds. And there is also respect for the people who cultivate, plant and harvest, while floor workers in more traditional workplaces may feel they aren’t appreciated or valued.

Developing an older workforce strategy (OWS) could be a way to address some human resources issues and ensure a smooth transition from the older to the younger generation, whether on a farm or in an agri-business. That strategy might include an inventory of the available labour in the area and the skills available, something no one is sure how to go about, but which would be an incredible asset for farms and businesses to draw upon.

Some businesses are developing OWSs in response to the growing body of research about the value of older workers in the workplace. Barkman believes there needs to be a more holistic approach to human resource planning in general.

“If a company had a holistic human resource plan that took an integrated approach to people planning, there would be no need for specific strategies for any age group or any ability group. It would be about people and skills and teamwork,” she says. “Many companies have started to shoehorn the OWS and it is seen as just one more program that HR has to monitor rather than an integrated normal part of work life.”

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