The industry is booming but engineers over 45 are struggling to get work. Andrew Mylius investigates.
Just six out of 10 people made redundant under the age of 45 return to work within a year. That is a depressing enough statistic. But according to the Office of National Statistics, if you are over 45, your chances of finding work fall to 10%. And the longer you are jobless the less employable you become.
'Ten years ago, during the recession, it was not unusual to find people out of work for two to three years, ' says Bill Gray, operations director at technical recruitment consultancy Calco.
'The problem now is that, because there is a skills shortage and a buoyant civils market, it is very difficult to explain why someone has been out of work for more than 12 to 15 months.'
Civils workload is outstripping the rate at which consultants, contractors and clients can recruit staff, we are told.
There is a skills crisis. Some firms are worried that shortages of personnel with good qualifications, well honed skills and industry experience are jeopardising the very future of the industry.
So why, asked a recent stream of letters received by NCE, are so many engineers in their 50s and early 60s unemployed?
Since Christmas, several engineers have written to express their amazement and frustration at hitting a wall every time they approach employers for work - problems are particularly acute in the rail sector, they say. After three decades working their way up from graduate engineer to resident engineer, project manager, area/business manager or director, they have fallen victim to downsizing or restructuring.
And suddenly their track records count for nought.
'Letters tend to be the very tip of the iceberg, ' comments spokesman for pressure group The Employers Forum on Age, Rob Cope. 'Anecdotally, there are large numbers of people with an engineering background kicking around in the job market, ' adds chairman of the Third Age Employment Forum, Patrick Gratton.
Exact data on the number and proportion of older engineers out of work does not exist.
Across the UK economy as a whole, over 50s represent a third of people of working age but only a fifth of the workforce. And while older people fare better in the retail sector, where a desire to reflect customer profiles encourages a mixed workforce, they face prejudice in the professions.
Parallels with the IT industry are illuminating. Data collected by Silicon Research Services 18 months ago showed that though two thirds of IT firms had difficulty recruiting, ageism limited applicants' chances of winning a job after age 35. Meanwhile, the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) discovered in January last year that one in eight people had been discouraged from applying for jobs on grounds of age; market research firm NOP found 90% believed employers discriminate against older applicants.
'Officially employers are not allowed to make an assessment on age but in reality they do take it into account, ' confirms Hays Montrose recruitment consultant Carl Wright.
Anders Elite consultant Paul Teen speaks for his clients:
'Would you want to employ a 55 year old over a 25 year old? The 25 year old would work harder.'
And Calco consultant Justin Henderson underlines Wright's view: 'A lot of employers do prefer younger guys. Salaries are an issue.'
No employer will confess to ageism - a sample of major clients, consultants and contractors contacted by NCE said they operate rigorous equal opportunities policies. A few did, however, admit they were particularly looking for graduates, while others said they would appoint whoever was best qualified for the job but paid according to experience. This is telling. Because of their experience older engineers are seen as expensive, says Cope. It is also widely believed older engineers need more intensive training than young guns.
Cost conscious employers are using a flawed rationale, however, argues Gray. 'The reality is that older engineers are usually prepared to accept less. Normally their mortgage is lower than that of a younger man. Their children are raised and have left home.'
'People in their 50s and 60s are realistic, adds Cope. 'They frequently undersell themselves to get the job, ' he says. Engineers in their mid-50s typically take a pay cut of 15% to 20% when they return to work after a period of unemployment, making them competitive with engineers half their age. And 'particularly towards the end of their careers they may actually want less responsibility', taking correspondingly lower pay, adds CIPD chief economist John Philpott.
Employers are wrong to assume that older engineers require more intensive training than people in their 20s and 30s, or that they face any greater difficulties learning IT skills, says Cary Cooper, BUPA professor of organisation psychology at University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology. Continuous learning is one of the fundamentals of the engineering profession, Cooper notes. The last two decades have seen change taking place at a particularly rapid rate. He dismisses the question of whether old engineers are willing to retrain out of hand: 'People wouldn't be applying for jobs if they weren't prepared and able to learn.'
There is a misapprehension that skills become dated and are eroded by a few months on the dole. According to Gratton, engineering skills have a shelf life of seven years and IT skills remain current for three years, meaning that anyone who has been in work at all recently will be adequately equipped to take up the reins in a new position. The fundamentals of engineering never change, points out Gray.
And counter to what most employers believe, money is as or more wisely spent on training old engineers than graduates. People in their 20s and 30s are widely viewed as keener, harder working and more loyal than older people. However, experience shows a 25 year old is twice as likely to seek a new job, says Philpott.
The only time that cost is an issue comes where pensions are concerned.
'Pensions are a tricky issue all round, ' Philpott notes. Companies that pay pensions in proportion to final salaries face a double worry. They assume older engineers require higher pay, and an engineer hired at 55 will have a relatively short working career ahead. Employers regard this as poor value for money - a punitive imbalance between input and output, Philpott says. However, as employers are fast switching to 'money purchase' contributory pension schemes, the argument that hiring older staff is expensive cuts less and less ice.
Contract work, however, falls outside laws governing earnings and pensions, offering engineers in their 50s and 60s unpredictable but otherwise hassle free employment.
The biggest barrier to finding a job for most unemployed engineers over 50 is likely to be the level they pitch themselves at.
Forget management, advises Gray: 'My advice to older engineers is to try and find a role where you are using your engineering principles. They never change.
'Problems are mainly with people who during the 1980s and 90s became more managers than engineers.' Organisational changes in the construction industry in the last five or so years has removed whole layers of management. 'There are swathes of engineers who have management skills - it is a crowded area, ' Gray comments.
On the other hand, 'people will pay for skills'. The industry is particularly hungry for design and project supervision skills. By going back to basics, 'people may not be getting job satisfaction that they want, but they can get a job, ' he states.
Lower status, reduced pay and in some cases de-skilling are factors older employees in all parts of the economy have to contend with, reports Cope.
Research by pensions company Norwich Union last year showed that 75% of companies employ nobody over 60. All available evidence supports claims that ageism is commonplace.
'Companies are in denial, ' says Gratton. 'Not a lot of individuals have a positive hatred of the over 50s, but in practice they are in complete dreamland about what they are actually doing.'
Leading by example In 1989, DIY giant B&Q carried out a labour force experiment by staffing its B&Q Supercentre at Macclesfield entirely with people over 50. Within six months profits shot up by 18%, staff turnover fell by a factor of six and there was 39% less absenteeism. As a result, over 5,500 people aged 50 and over are now employed by B&Q in the UK, carrying out a wide variety of tasks.
B&Q thinks that an older workforce brings attitudes and experience to the workplace that younger staff members simply can not match.
Performance is reflected in profit.
'Over 50s are more likely to own their own home and do DIY themselves. Their knowledge of DIY would therefore be higher than someone younger, ' says a B&Q spokeswoman. 'Also, they are likely to have a different perspective on what represents good customer service.' This includes taking more time to help customers and showing greater interest, especially if they have come from practical backgrounds such as civil engineering.
One current employee is ex-civil engineer and ICE member Peter Cook, who was once managing director for contractor George Wimpey's operations in Nigeria. However in 1992, he found himself out of work, aged 61.
Rather than head for the golf course, Cook was keen to work and started applying in earnest for construction jobs. However, 200 letters of application later he began to realise his situation was impossible. 'The general reply was that I was overqualified, ' says Cook, but adds that he is certain the refusals were due to his age.
Later that year Cook saw that his local B&Q store in Wandsworth was advertising for staff. The firm offered him a role as a DIY adviser - initially he was simply giving advice.
But his role widened to helping B&Q with recruitment publicity and he later became a founder member of the company's on-line advisory service.
Cook still works for the firm today at 70. His success in the company, he claims, is partly down to his maturity but also his background in the construction industry. His practical background helps him understand exactly what customers want, but his maturity gives him the added bonus of patience - a real plus for effective customer service.
In return, Cook believes that continuing to work has enabled him to keep healthy in mind and body. 'It keeps me active, otherwise I'd be sitting on a golf course wondering when it is gin and tonic time, ' he says, adding that physical fitness and mental stimulation are particularly important in later life. 'I look at colleagues who have retired properly and they have degenerated remarkably rapidly, ' he adds.
However he admits that as much as he enjoys his work at B&Q and the support the company has given him, he would drop it all to return to 'real' construction. 'If I could go back to the frontline I'd be very happy, ' he says.
This is entirely dependent on a change in the industry's attitude, he concedes: 'It does seem a tremendous shame that most people, after they've retired, are put out to grass.'
Nina Lovelace INFOPLUS lSee Debate page 19 The ICE is compiling a register of retired and semi-retired members looking for work. For details contact Eve Light at the ICE, tel (020) 7222 7722, or David Loosemore, e-mail David.Loosemore@arup. com.
Employers Forum on Age:
www. efa. org. uk Third Age Employment Network: www. taen. org. uk Institute of Personnel & Development: www. cipd.co.uk Engineering Employers Federation: www. eef. org. uk Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development:
www. cipd.co.uk www. nceplus.co.uk/magazine Is ageism a problem?
If you would like to respond to this article, please write to NCE, 151 Rosebery avenue, London EC1R 4GB, e-mail nceedit@construct. emap. com or visit www. nceplus.co.uk/magazine