My Turn: Older workers: another potential Alaska gold mine

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2004

Many Alaska employers are missing out on employing some outstanding workers, in many cases because they have accepted some outdated clichés: "He or she is 'too old.' 'Too slow.' 'Too behind the times.' He or she 'didn't have the right look.'" But the truth is, older Alaskans can be extremely valuable workers.

Our seniors are a human gold mine, a resource that too often is overlooked in meeting Alaska's workforce needs. With an increasing older population in Alaska it is time to put the myths to rest and bring out the facts.

It is projected that Alaska's elderly, age 60 and over, will make up 20 percent of the state's population in 2025. That works out to 165,000 persons, compared to 53,000, or 8.5 percent of the population, in 2000.

The U.S. Census Bureau's population survey for 2000 revealed that about 6,000 Alaskans, or 17.5 percent of persons age 65 or over, were working or looking for work. The national figure during this time was 12.8 percent. As Alaska's population gets older the number of elderly Alaskans seeking work will increase.

We have identified several myths and realties regarding older workers:

• Myth: People over 65 are too old to keep working.

Reality: Thanks to advances in health care, older workers are better able than ever to continue making contributions to the workforce.

• Myth: Older workers don't care about the success of their employer.

Reality: Hiring managers report that older workers are more quality-conscious and have a firmer dedication to their jobs, product, services, and employers than younger workers.

• Myth: Older workers frequently miss work for health reasons.

Reality: Absenteeism is only slightly higher for older workers: 4.1 percent for workers 55 and older, versus 3.8 percent for workers 25 to 54.

• Myth: Training older workers is a waste of time, because they will retire soon anyway.

Reality: Of all age groups, job retention is highest among 55-to-64 year olds, even when the older worker is a recent hire. In fact, when retirement is excluded, workers over the age of 60 have a turnover rate less than one-sixth that of workers aged 35 and younger.

• Myth: Older workers are technophobes who are unable to make use of information technology.

Reality: Between 1997 and 2000, people over 50 were reportedly the fastest growing part of the U.S. Internet audience, growing from 19 percent to 38 percent in just three years. And the growth hasn't slowed. Internet use by Americans 50-64 years old increased by 15 percent between 2000 and 2002, while usage by Americans 65 and older increased by 28 percent.

Myths are a poor excuse for not hiring older Alaskans. They are dedicated and loyal. They understand the meaning of "getting the job done." They possess a sense of accountability and responsibility.

Alaska's older workers are neither lazy nor burned-out. They've learned that productivity is a product of disciplined habits.

Gov. Frank Murkowski designated the past week National Employ Older Workers Week in Alaska. Please consider older Alaskans if you are an employer and need reliable, experienced employees. This is one valuable Alaska resource you shouldn't pass up. (And by the way, I'll be 62 in November.)

• Greg O'Claray is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.



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