AFR Director commentary in Accountancy magazine

SOURCE: Accountancy Magazine March 2012

The Job Market is particularly tough for older accountants, but Phil Scott says age should not be a factor when recruiting 

As a recruitment consultant, I’ve witnessed the challenges faced by job seekers in the current economic climate.  Fewer vacancies and more candidates means finding a new position is a frustrating experience for many.

Job hunting is particularly tough for mature candidates.  Despite their extensive qualifications and experience it can take a long time just to acquire a temporary contract and many are unable to secure a permanent position, even after months or years of searching.

I recently conducted a UK survey of accountants to better understand the situation, and I was genuinely surprised by the results.  Over 83 per cent of those surveyed, which included recruiting managers, stated ageism existed within the industry.  While a staggering 91 per cent of unemployed accountants aged over 50 said they believed they had experienced discrimination when applying for positions.

This raised the question, why is the accounting sector so reluctant to consider employing older people?

There is a perception about mature accountants who appear to be taking a sideways or even backwards step when applying for new positions.  Employers believe they will only stay in the role until something better comes along and ‘jump ship’ as soon as the market picks up.

This isn’t accurate.  In my experience just because someone has earned six figures in the past, it doesn’t mean that’s what they are looking for now.   Over 80 per cent of the mature unemployed accountants I surveyed said they have salary expectations of between 40-75 per cent of their career peak earning levels.  And it’s not because they’re desperate for work.  Most will have paid off their mortgages and have grown up children, so they simply don’t need to earn the same as they used to.

They may also be less demanding in terms of salary because they’re no longer trying to climb the career ladder and have fewer expectations of promotion.  A mature candidate will often be very happy to consider part-time, contract or temporary work too.

Some employers also perceive older accountants to have a limited shelf life, and they could get more from employing someone younger.  They are concerned about succession planning, and have a belief that younger members of the team will stay around long enough to be trained to take over from senior management.  While this may be possible, it’s rarely the case.

The days of younger people wanting to stay with a company for 20 years or more are gone.  Within the finance sector in particular, an ambitious young person is likely to change company every few years in order to advance their career and salary.  It’s often the mature candidates who can offer stability and are looking for a long-term role.

In our recent survey we found that 70 per cent of people who had changed roles after the age of 45 were still in that role in ten years later.  Conversely, 70 per cent of people under the age of 30, who changed employers, moved company again within the next three years.   The average length of company service for those aged under 30, is less than three and half years.  The cost to an employer, who has to recruit three people into the same position over a ten year period, equates to tens of thousands of pounds of wasted money.

Am I advocating that employers start to discriminate against younger people in favour of older?  No, absolutely not, companies should always recruit the person that’s right for their business regardless of age, but I would urge recruiting managers to ‘cast their net wider’. As more people forego early retirement, the pool of talent available in the employment market is growing. It’s seriously worth considering the benefits mature employees can bring to companies – commitment, experience, flexibility, stability and realistic expectations.