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This week we ask: Is ageism a problem for engineers over 50?

Debate Ageism Senior and experienced engineers have been writing to NCE saying that, despite the industry skills shortage, they can't get work.

Yes 'Gissa job' is a phrase more commonly associated with the unemployed and unskilled than highly qualified civil engineers.

But it finds an echo with engineers aged over 50. Few employers seem willing to hire them despite constant talk of skills shortages within the profession.

Is this evidence of unfair age discrimination - or are older engineers simply more difficult to employ?

Almost one in three British men aged 50-64 is jobless - a generation ago the figure was just one in 10. Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) surveys show that many people feel they have been victims of ageism, while according to an NOP poll, 30% of companies admit to taking age into account when hiring and letting staff go.

In itself this is not evidence of discrimination. An older civil engineer might be qualified and experienced but not up to speed with the latest techniques. And even if capable of updating their skills, employers may still be hesitant about investing in people with relatively few years of employment ahead of them or who could be prone to agerelated illness. Psychological studies also suggest that people experience a marked reduction in brainpower and physical strength after the age of 45.

In addition, pay and pension arrangements mean it is cheaper to employ younger people.

Yet despite all this there is a growing feeling that employers are being shortsighted. A number of studies show that in practice there is no difference in productivity between younger and older workers. Indeed, an age diverse workforce offers considerable productivity benefits to employers.

The good news for older civil engineers is that employer practice is about to be tested.

Having agreed to the European Union general anti-discrimination directive the UK must, by 2006, regulate to ensure that employers do not treat people unfairly on grounds of age. So unjustified ageism should soon become a thing of the past.

No Today, companies spend a lot of time and effort recruiting graduate engineers but they are only part of the picture as they take time to develop the necessary skills and experience. Railtrack needs to fill the skills gap now.

Engineers aged over 50 who are physically fit, capable of building on related engineering knowledge and are willing to develop a new career will find an industry eager to use their skills. Indeed many of the general characteristics of a good engineer come with age; maturity, approach to safety, partnership working and soundness of decision making under pressure. These characteristics are highly valuable in the rail industry.

Railtrack views age as no barrier to taking up an engineering career. Where engineers have the right experience, Railtrack will offer employment as it has done recently with a structures engineer aged 50 plus in the Midlands.

Several Railtrack engineers in their mid-40s on the first track conversion programme believe that age itself is not a barrier to successful completion of the course. These engineers bring experience and skills in the management of engineering activity gained in other industries. The backgrounds of these engineers are diverse, ranging from mining, construction, manufacturing and the steel industries. Their experience is valuable when transferred to the rail industry.

Railtrack is keen to build on this experience and has developed a conversion programme aimed at providing engineers with sufficient technical knowledge over a six-month period to equip them for a front line role.

Experienced and skilled engineers who are willing to learn are a scarce resource. Railtrack will build upon their learning and convert them to railway engineers because they offer experience, knowledge and maturity. These engineers not only offer the characteristics the industry requires, they are also able to fill the skill shortages that the industry suffers from.

The facts l84% of men over 50 were working in 1979; 69% were working in 2000.

lUnemployment among the over 50s costs the UK £5.5bn in lost tax and benefits each year and £31bn in lost production, says Cranfield School of Management.

l90% of older people believe employers are ageist, says market researcher NOP.

l55% of managers admit they use age as a criterion for recruitment, reports the Institute of Management.

lBy 2010, 40% of the labour force will be over age 45.

lRailtrack has been criticised in a number of letters to NCE for not even responding to applications from older engineers. After checking its files the infrastructure operator reported it has no record of the approaches. However, it says, applications from suitably qualified engineers of all ages are welcome.

Contact: Railtrack Corporate Resource Centre, Mercury House, 2nd floor North, 117 Waterloo Road, London SE1 8UL.

lSee cover feature page 14

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