I don’t really hear the above words spoken this way. I hear it just about every day, but nobody says it just that way. They say things like, “Well we want people who are ‘moving up’ in their career,”…”We really only want 5 to 7 years of management experience, if that,”… “Our average age around here is in the 30s and we want someone who can identify with that group”… ” Senior management is in their early 40s so we don’t want someone older than that”… No matter how they say it, it’s all the same thing, “we just don’t want to hire somebody that’s older.”
Of course, when our client says things this blatantly, our standard comeback is, “Well, we will refer every candidate who is qualified regardless of just about anything. As long as they are capable of doing the job we will refer them.” And, of course, our clients will say, “yeah, okay” and go back to either including or eliminating candidates for any reason they want. We recommend them no matter what.
One of my candidates wrote when she read between the lines and interpreted her being turned down for an interview as her being “too old.” This is about as well written and articulate as I’ve ever seen anyone (boomer) express themselves about the condition of the marketplace. It is not only sincere but communicates exactly the way people over 50 feel. It’s so well done, I have to share it: (Her particular profession is in high-tech sales. But before you dismiss that as, “it’s different in my profession” read the whole article.)
“I have spent the past 25 years becoming an expert at my craft, winning performance awards, demonstrating consistent growth, and helping others replicate my success, that I am no longer marketable because I am over 50 years old and have too much experience.
Nobody sees value in a consistent, 25 year track record or the 80+ recommendations on LinkedIn from my clients, partners, peers, direct reports, and management. This new revelation surprises me because I actually feel that I am just now hitting my stride. I have worked too hard to get here to accept that my experience is no longer valued. I fully expect, and look forward to, another 20 years of success.
Earlier in my career, I resisted leadership roles because frankly, I have always produced, so I actually am at a stage of my life that I get more fulfillment from helping others grow than from my personal growth. So I have gone down the leadership path. Now I find out that I am over qualified for an individual contributor role and I am really too old to lead.
I also learned that the number of jobs I have is unattractive to potential employers. It’s been my experience that having a diverse background of Fortune 500 companies gives me an upper hand in a competitive sales scenario. I have been well trained at each company and I also know the reality of each company’s weaknesses. I know why we won and I know why we lost. My clients have been located all over the United States. Wouldn’t that knowledge and experience bring tremendous value to an organization that competes with them? I was also told that I have too many short stints at risky start-ups on my resume. Why is it automatically assumed that a career change is due to the employee’s shortcomings?”
There are facts around strategic career moves, ethical conflicts, product viability, misrepresentation of comp plans, and management shortfalls that I would not want to discuss during a job interview because I try to focus on my success at each role vs. why I am still not there. Regardless of what I experienced, I have left each company stronger, wiser, and better equipped to be successful at the next job. I love that my background is diverse. I find it confusing that what I consider to be “experience,” is considered “unhirable” by today’s Corporate America.
I also learned that having many jobs makes some potential employers worry that I may be unstable. Well, I am glad that my instability hasn’t impacted my 28 year marriage. I am glad that this instability didn’t damage the successful, ethical, moral, honors graduate that we raised. I am grateful that the instability didn’t impact me financing 100% of my own college education or the multiple jobs I held while completing my education. And finally, I am grateful that my instability didn’t impact the three jobs that lasted over five years, each or all the awards I have earned throughout the years or the billions of dollars in sales that I closed while living in DFW my entire life.”
It’s really important for all of us to have a perspective of age and how it is perceived by hiring authorities, especially if the perception is, “too old.” The real issues around being “too old” in getting hired is not the issue of age so much as it is a group of issues that are reflected in being older. It’s not being “older” that is the issue as much as it is a whole bunch of things that happen to come along with “being older.” Let me explain with the story of my own personal practice.
My personal practice in the recruitment profession centers around high-tech and IT sales and sales management. My personal practice covers everything from products, hardware, software, etc., to services, staffing, consulting, etc. Our firm employs more than 20 recruiters focusing on candidates and opportunities closely in the DFW area but also some in Austin and Houston. Even though my personal practice is in IT sales, our firm works practices in banking, finance and accounting, IT, administrative, and technical placement. The firm has been around since 1952, focusing on the local area.
I started in the business in 1973. In the late 80s I began to place salespeople in the emerging high-tech/data processing field. It began with organizations like ADP hiring copier and office products salespeople, because there were no “experienced” payroll services salespeople available. In other words, people like ADP could not find experienced people for what they did, so they had to hire the “best athletes” they could and train them in payroll services sales. As technology advanced, organizations like Computer Associates, Oracle, PeopleSoft (and hundreds of other software firms whose names are ancient history) couldn’t find experienced software salespeople, so they hired tons of “best athletes” they could find…like payroll processing salespeople (from ADP and the like). My wife, Chris and I put our first of five children through Columbia University on the fees I earned from placing people with just Computer Associates. The late 80s and most all of the 90s were hot markets for technology salespeople, fortunately for us, in the Dallas-Fort Worth market. There were literally thousands of IT salespeople in the area and they were moving around as fast as the hundreds of companies getting into the software/services business could hire them. They were all in their late 20s to early 40s.The industry was young and aggressive and they were hiring those types of people. To give you a perspective, in the year 2000, I personally billed more than $4.3 million in fees. I was placing 15 to 20 of these people a month, for a whole year. (It was not my recruiting ability; I happened to catch a great market at the right time!)
A lot of the folks that I was placing became rock stars. (The Candidate quoted above was one of them!) It wasn’t uncommon to see lots of these people earning more than $1 million a year. High-tech was hot and lots of people could see no end to it. In the mid-2000’s though, technology started to catch up with itself. Companies were either evolving or emerging to create environments with even more efficiency and less technology. Some technology firms, like Oracle, SAP, Microsoft and a few others grew exponentially. But for every one of those, literally hundreds of these firms declined, got absorbed or simply went away. As technology advanced, business didn’t need as much technology. Hardware became more efficient, cheaper and eventually a commodity. Software went to the cloud and competition drove the pricing drastically downward.
As technology evolved, the users of it became more savvy and understanding about what the technology did. The technology firms that had to hire salespeople to help businesses change the way they did business in the late 80s and 90s could hire a different breed of salesperson once their customers got used to the technology. Take an example of payroll services. Payroll service companies had to hire really smart, convincing, aggressive salespeople in the late 80s and early 90s because these salespeople were getting businesses to outsource and trust the sales person’s employer with one of their most important endeavors… payroll. The last thing a business wants is to make a mistake with its payroll. It took some phenomenally convincing salespeople to get businesses to change the way they were doing things and to turn that function over to someone else. It was not uncommon to see some of these salespeople making $250,000-$350,000 a year selling payroll services. These salespeople conditioned and educated their customers to trust an outside service with one of the most important functions of the company. These sales folks were literally changing the manner in which companies did business.
Now, feature the fact that eventually hordes of businesses in the United States used payroll services. Most every business totally understands the service and isn’t afraid of it. Payroll services do not have to hire “attainer” type salespeople anymore because the customer understands, sometimes better than the salesperson, what the service is. The payroll service can hire a “maintainer” to go out and call on potential customers to get them to simply “change” payroll services. Not only are these payroll services offering other employee oriented products like insurance, but the only differentiator with many of them is simply “price”. The service has now become a commodity. The customer knows as much about the product and the service as the provider does. In fact, all of the providers are providing a wonderful education for the customer to the point where the customer is tremendously enlightened. In fact, most anyone who can maneuver the Internet can go online and buy payroll processing services for their company. Not only do they not need a salesperson, but they can get all of their customer support over the phone or live chat. Technology has changed the whole thing!
Now, extrapolate what happened in the payroll services business to all kinds of other hardware and software technology innovations. As technology advances, the products and services become cheaper and the providers need to hire fewer people and can spend less money doing it (telecom business). One of my associates, Jim Brown has been with us for almost 30 years. As I was placing sales and marketing folks in technology, he was placing systems engineers and customer support folks. Back then, just about every sales and marketing organization had a boatload of SE’s supporting salespeople. These were people who did the technical demonstrations to the customer of what the hardware and software could do. It was definitely technical stuff and required not only superior technical skills but also great people skills. Most people don’t have any idea how the ability to do customer demonstrations has changed with the speed and the quality of the Internet. The technology to write software has advanced so rapidly, companies don’t need as many developers as they used to.
When you think about it, the advance of technology has decreased the need for the number of people it took to deliver the technology into the marketplace. With the contraction of the number of technology firms…sure, there are the salesforces and the workdays of the world but nowhere near the numbers of them as back in the evolutionary periods of Oracle, SAP, Microsoft, etc….. there is a glut of technology sales/managers/technical support/developers available who cut their teeth and their career helping to build these organizations. When they need to change jobs or find a new job, they find that they are competing with hordes of other candidates with the same pedigree and background. In other words, the supply has far out distanced the demand. Ironically, technology has advanced so far that it has created a glut of technology people available for fewer jobs.
The result – For every sales position that I work with, my client can choose, just in sheer numbers from 25 or 30 people. For every management position there are 45 to 50 candidates available. Now, maybe not all of these people are “equal” but their experience and abilities are not that far off from each other. There are fewer positions and lots and lots and lots of choices of candidates. Years ago, they used us to find the “best athlete” they could and taught them what they needed to know. Now they use us to identify two or three excellent candidates out of the pool of 40 or 50 possibilities. The effort of the work is the same but the facet of it is different.
We all have a tendency to think that our success is because we’re so damn good. We neglect to accept the fact that we might’ve been at the right place at the right time. There’s been years since 2000 that I have done one half of that $4.3 million, but I haven’t come close to it since. 1999 and 2000 were anomalies. They were the point in time where technology was taking off and I happen to be in the recruiting business and happen to be doing it in Dallas, Texas which was a hub of technology. Did I work hard? Absolutely! Was I lucky? Absolutely! I rode the wave. It was a blast. But it wasn’t me. Well some of it might’ve been a little me, but it was mostly the market. It was a time when we got people hired and they didn’t even have to have a resume. They would have one interview and get hired on the spot.
So here is what happens now. One of these clients comes along and needs to hire, let’s say, a salesperson in the software sales arena, let’s say the average salary is $110,000 base salary with the total on target earnings of $240,000. I easily have at least 15 (if not more) qualified candidates for them. Short of one green eye and one blue eye on the same person, I have five or six that are exactly what they might be looking for.
Now, in the eyes of my client, looking at the candidate who I quoted above, why would they consider someone with 25 years of experience when they only need, according to them, 10 years of experience? Recommendations are great, but their fear is if they “overhire” and get someone with 25 years of experience when they only need 10 years of experience, that person will leave if they get the chance for a better job that might be more commensurate with their 25 years of experience. Even though the candidate is willing to accept a sales job, even though she has been in management, the client is concerned that if they hire someone like her as a salesperson, she will continue looking for a management job. (This is a fallacy. People very rarely take a job and then keep looking for another one, especially on a professional level.), but in 44 years I’ve never been able to convince anybody that just because a person’s been in management before they will leave a non-management job if a management opportunity comes along.
Although the candidate may feel that she is “just now hitting my stride,” the client feels that she is taking one or two steps backward and is afraid, again, that if a perceived better opportunity comes along, she would leave. She is perceived to be “overqualified” for a contributor role. And, when a management role came along, which it did the other day, the client had so many people to choose from who had experience in exactly what they did, she was eliminated. She wasn’t eliminated because of her age, she was eliminated because of her experience, or lack of it.
The number of jobs this candidate has had is probably one of the most difficult challenges I, or any other recruiter deals with. When a hiring authority sees a number of short stints on a resume, this scenario runs through their head: they will hire this person, they will stay a short period of time and the hiring authority’s boss will turn to them and say, “You damn fool, couldn’t you see that they were only going to stay a short period of time?…” All of the reasons that the candidate went to or left the jobs they’ve had doesn’t matter. The hiring authority has so many people available to them, running the risk of a person with too many jobs isn’t something most of them are willing to do. “Ethical conflicts…product viability…misrepresentation…management shortfalls…” might all be true, but our hiring authority is afraid of making a mistake and may not even listen to these realities.
The issues that most over 50-year-old candidates face are not issues of age. They are issues that come along with age. If these firms interviewed a 30-year-old who was experientially overqualified or had made too much money or had too many jobs, they probably wouldn’t hire them either. But, alas, it’s hard to see or appreciate this when you are looking for a job and keep getting turned down. The candidate I quoted above is a good person with a great track record. Any company that would hire her would get a great employee. I’ve placed her twice in her 25 year career and she’s great. If I could place her again, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But I don’t write the rules. I live by the policies and parameters that our clients dictate to us.
The most difficult fact that most job seekers, but especially the ones over 50-years-old, have to come to grips with is the phenomenal number of candidates a hiring authority has to choose from. People say to me all the time, “But unemployment is at 4.3%; there can’t be that many good candidates!” Well, in most professions, there are. And even if there aren’t, most hiring authorities would rather run a risk with a lesser experienced person then an overly experienced person. Most job seekers see a job opportunity through their own eyes and have no idea how they stack up with the other candidates that might be available to the employer. They know they have the ability to do the job. And they probably do have that ability. But the ability to get the job is another matter.
Being too old isn’t the issue. It’s all of the things that come with it!
So, it’s easy to say, “Well this candidate is in high tech sales and it’s different in my profession. I still have the same problem… but it’s harder with me!” We are such interesting beings. We always think the other guy has an easier go at things than we do. Having been in the placement profession since 1973 here are some of the professions and businesses I’ve experienced changing. If you were in one of these businesses or professions, the story of my candidate above applies to you also:
Electronics… diodes, resistors and PC boards .. Manufacturing to sales (years ago!)
Key punch operations and management
Telecommunications…manufacturing, sales, installation
Drafting and Design
Electronic equipment installation and maintenance
I could go on and on, but I think you get my point. My gut is that 60% of America’s workforce could eventually live the same scenario.
Growing older has its challenges.
But wait…there’s more…Just this last week I placed a friend of mine who I’ve known for more than 22 years. He has been a candidate of mine. He has been an employer of mine. He has hired a number of people from me over the years. He has even owned his own business for a number of years… been the president. He sold that company a number of years ago and most recently has been a senior salesperson with a medium-size software company.
His company was sold and the organization that bought it wanted the technology and not the personnel, so they laid him off. I referred him to one of our clients. Fortunately, and this is the caveat, he had been selling into the same market that our client was. He went to work for $120,000 base salary…he asked $150,000 base salary like he had been making before he got laid off but our client wouldn’t do it. The company is small and there is some risk to it. But he looks at the opportunity with “no expectations.” He figures, that if it grows there’s a chance he could move into management. He is 66 years old and has grandkids just like me.
(Admittedly, we all got lucky here. It never hurts to have a little luck.)