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When age is not a barrier but an asset
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When age is not a barrier but an asset

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With improving healthcare and medical advances, age is now merely a number.

Lifespans have increased exponentially and individuals are living and working longer. Moreover, rather than losing control of their faculties, today’s over-60s are leading healthy and active lives, and they have a lot to offer in terms of knowledge, experience and expertise.

However, misconceptions regarding the employability of mature workers still abound.

“There are several negative stereotypes about senior employees that hold companies back from tapping into this resource and what they can contribute to their business”, says a spokesperson from the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), whose primary role is to promote the adoption of fair, responsible and progressive employment practices in Singapore.

A global study Looking to 2060: Long-term global growth prospects published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2012 grimly forecasted that ageing will be a drag on growth in many countries, adding to the fears about older workers.

What these institutions fail to grasp is the fact that today’s mature workers are more educated and savvier than their previous cohorts. In fact, these underappreciated workers are highly instrumental in enabling companies to succeed in an increasingly competitive landscape.

Never too old to learn

Dr Renuka Mathur (name changed), a 64-year-old sonographer at a restructured hospital, is a picture of poise and health. She speaks brightly and articulately, and remains highly enthusiastic about the role she has held at the hospital for the last 26 years.

Her role involves working with complex medical equipment to produce dynamic visual images of organs, tissues or blood flow inside the body. “The work I do keeps my brain buzzing, and it helps me to stay active. It is very important to keep busy physically and mentally as long as I can, as I believe that adopting a sedentary lifestyle after you hit 60 could have a detrimental impact on your health and quality of life,” said Dr Mathur.

With this philosophy in mind, Dr Mathur ensures that learning is still very much part of her life, and she continues to keep abreast of technological advances.

Several times a year, she attends both refresher courses as well as seminars that impart complex technical concepts, which enable her to keep up to date with the latest medical advances in her field. “I have to keep pace with new technology – I cannot perform my job to the best of my abilities and serve patients without assimilating new knowledge,” she added.

Dr Mathur has attended advanced ultrasound lectures in the last two years and now incorporates what she has learnt into her day to day work. “I interpret scans based on the latest scientific findings shared by experts, helping obstetricians and gynaecologists make sound medical diagnoses,” she explained. “For example, I screen foetuses for Down’s Syndrome.”

Another believer of lifelong learning is Goh Jeow Hong, a sprightly 85-year old technician at Novotel Singapore Clarke Quay. “Since starting work at Novotel 15 years ago, I have been learning on the job and picking up new things and technologies as I go. I enjoy tinkering and finding out how things work. For instance, I taught myself how to repair and maintain air-conditioning systems. You are never too old to learn,” he said.

85-year-old Goh Jeow Hong working at Novotel Singapore Clarke Quay
Mr. Goh Jeow Hong, 85 years old, working at Novotel Singapore Clarke Quay. Credit: Novotel Singapore Clarke Quay

Despite his advanced age, it is apparent that Mr Goh is unperturbed by technological changes. Amazingly, he carries out all repairs and maintenance within the 408-room hotel entirely on his own, including machine servicing, painting and carpentry.

Mature workers in the service industry are also keen to improve. Since joining McDonald's in 2012, 74-year-old employee How Jee Suan has gone for a number of food service and customer service courses and received a Workforce Skills Qualification (WSQ) qualification along the way. He has been commended by his superiors as a fast learner.

74-year-old How Jee Suan working at McDonalds
Mr. How Jee Suan, 74 years old, working at McDonalds. Credit: Linda Haden

Mr How is also currently learning English. "It is good to learn new skills to improve my on-job performance. Learning English is something that enriches me personally and has been relatively easy to do," he quipped.

A fountain of knowledge

TAFEP highlights that by retaining older workers, companies can preserve their valuable storehouse of knowledge. “See older workers as a fountain of knowledge and experience. They can act as mentors, coaches and trainers,” says the TAFEP spokesperson.

Dr Mathur, for example, devotes a significant chunk of her time imparting her vast knowledge and expertise to younger staff members and new entrants. “Mentoring is a huge responsibility, but I enjoy sharing my expertise,” she remarked. Mr Goh mentors polytechnic interns as well, helping them to refine their technical skills.

Owing to his impeccable track record in customer service, Mr How helps managers to train new arrivals, a role he relishes. "It is great to know you play a key part in building a strong team," he said.

Strong work ethics

According to TAFEP, senior employees are fiercely loyal, and they generally have lower levels of turnover and absenteeism.

Mr Goh, for instance, claims that in the 15 years he has been with Novotel, he has never called in sick. “Going to work keeps my mind and body healthy,” he said. On some days, he even reports for work early to be on hand in case he is needed.

The same could be said for Mr How. Except for the occasional day when he goes for a medical check-up, he works for around six to eight hours a day, six days a week.

Patrick Fiat, general manager of Royal Plaza on Scotts, affirms that older workers are highly committed to their jobs. “Some companies perceive that older employees may not be able to give their full commitment due to other priorities but our mature talents have been loyal and are very dedicated to their work,” he said.

With Singapore facing an ageing population, there is a clear pressing need for organisations to be both ready and willing to tap on older workers for sustained growth.

Benefitting from our greying workforce

Companies have to face up to the reality of an ever-tightening labour market, with the greying of the workforce and stricter foreign workforce policies.

With Singapore facing an ageing population, there is a clear pressing need for organisations to be both ready and willing to tap on older workers for sustained growth.

“Firms cannot continue to expect a large number of young people to enter the workforce and fill vacancies. Organisations have to adapt and not use age as a way to determine an employee’s ability,” says the TAFEP spokesperson. “Employers should draw upon the growing pool of experienced and skilled older workers in Singapore to help them to maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace and meet their manpower needs.”

Royal Plaza on Scotts is one organisation that has consistently done this, and is now acknowledged as one of the most prolific employers of older workers in Singapore. The hotel was an early pioneer, having rolled out re-employment practices for workers approaching retirement age since 2007, even before the Retirement and Re-employment Act came into effect in 2012. In 2009, the hotel was bestowed with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) International Innovative Employer Award in recognition of its re-employment policy that allows employees reaching the official retirement age to be retrained for hire at their last-held positions, with the same remuneration and benefits package. Currently, some 30 per cent of its labour pool are aged 50 and above.

Patrick Fiat celebrates with hotel associates
Patrick Fiat celebrates with hotel associates. Credit: Royal Plaza on Scotts

Mr Fiat said: “We believe that mature talents have a wealth of experience to offer. With people being our best asset, the retention and development of a multi-generational workforce are important aspects of manpower management.”

Implement age-friendly policies in the workplace

TAFEP suggests developing conducive work environments to recruit and retain older workers. This can be achieved by offering flexible work arrangements, the provision of tools to improve workplace safety as well as multi-generational training programmes.

Royal Plaza on Scotts has put all three recommendations in place. “We’ve implemented a flexible working arrangement so that mature employees can spend more time with their family in their golden years,” said Mr Fiat.

As part of its initiatives to improve workplace safety for senior employees, the hotel’s housekeeping department – where a large share of its mature workers are employed in – is also equipped with motorised trolleys, which reduce the energy and time required to push and transport amenities from room to room.

In addition, the hotel has a buddy system in place as part of its multi-generational training activities. “This enables younger employees to learn from mature and older colleagues on how to handle difficult customers while guiding their older colleagues on the effective usage of technology at the workplace,” explained Mr Fiat.

Patrick Fiat with the Housekeeping Attendant
Patrick Fiat with Housekeeping Attendant, Ms Chin Ah Moy. Credit: Royal Plaza on Scotts

However, retaining and managing mature talents is not without its challenges.

“The primary challenge we face with senior employees is that they sometimes find it difficult to complete certain tasks or are unable to work certain shifts due to health reasons or family commitments,” observed Mr Fiat.

Unfazed by this, he urges businesses to adapt their operational procedures to cater to the unique needs of older workers. “At Royal Plaza on Scotts, we continuously improve on our processes and make necessary adjustments to the work schedules in order to overcome these challenges,” he said.

Tapping into a vast pool of knowledge and experience

As Singapore moves towards a knowledge-based economy, experience is becoming more vital than physical labour, which mature talents have in abundance. It thus no longer makes sound business sense to dismiss or hold an employee back because of their age. There are challenges to retain and employ senior workers, but the benefits outweigh the costs, as the examples have shown.

It is time for businesses to realise this business case and necessity of tapping on our senior talents, so that they can charge ahead and succeed in the face of our ageing demographics and tight labour market.


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