In fact, there are few formal surveys of this group that reveal what their intentions actually are. However, two separate surveys of business executives in various age groups, conducted earlier this year by Korn Ferry, suggest that half will work past age 64. And three out of five anticipate making a major career change before retirement.
This data supports what Chuck Wardell, managing director for executive recruiter Korn Ferry International, sees as a general trend. "People are healthier, have more energy and are staying in shape. Age 50 of the past is more like age 60 today," he says. Wardell adds that many executives aren’t concerned about "keeping the same job at the same pay" and he often observes them choosing between two different career paths.
Wardell says that he sees executives either staying in the same profession while downsizing their responsibilities or he sees them "recareering"—putting their skills and knowledge to work in new careers, either with their current employers or with new ones. He says that many executives want jobs with a greater sense of purpose, and notes that a popular choice with executives is taking jobs that allow them to give back to the community, such as in the nonprofit sector.
Hiring for transferable skills and knowledge
A person who decides at midlife to strike out on a new career path is likely to find the traditional hiring process an unfriendly one, since it’s not set up to assess their transferable skills and abilities. John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, says that companies need greater sophistication in the way they look at applicants to make the most of boomer candidates who are in the midst of a career change.
"Companies are not hiring people for their skills. They look for people based upon their last title, not their skill set," Challenger says.
Gerry Crispin, co-founder of CareerXroads, a recruiting consulting firm in Kendall Park, New Jersey, agrees with Challenger. He does not assign high performance marks to U.S. businesses for recognizing the potential of career-switching candidates. The problem, as he describes it, is fixable if business begins to focus more on work design.
"Each business needs a group that can rethink the job description. It starts with a much more flexible paradigm for how we design work to meet the business requirements. Once we define the work elements, then you can associate the necessary skills to meet the work objectives," Crispin says. When companies begin to consider those people who are shifting their careers later in life, the door is open to a larger base of candidates, and they must be evaluated in a slightly different manner.
Steve Heinen, principal with the human capital practice at Mercer Human Resource Consulting, says that each candidate must be viewed as an individual. Behavioral interview questions should be used, and those questions should focus on the person’s ability to adapt and apply acquired knowledge.
"You really want them to describe what they’ve learned and how they’ve applied it in the past," Heinen says. "Have them describe how they’ve grown in their knowledge base. You want to hear the candidate articulate 20 years of experience, not one year 20 times."
Heinen, who is an industrial/organizational psychologist, adds that people who have a history of flexibility, dealing well with change and sequential knowledge growth would be good candidates for a shift to a different career in a new company.
Two organizations that are in the early lead
A CIO who was a gynecologist. A nurse who now leads patient-care projects in IT. Both of those sound like unusual career-changing success stories, but they’re not so rare at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The health care institution has grown by hiring and retaining a large number of knowledge workers who made just such shifts.
M.D. Anderson is a research-driven organization and has been increasing staff by 20 percent annually in a field that competes heavily for talent. Jim Dorn, chief HR officer, estimates that 5 percent to 10 percent of the 1,100 faculty researchers on the M.D. Anderson staff have expressed an interest in changing their careers. They’re an elite group of employees--Ph.D.s and M.D.s.
"In most cases they still like what they do, but they express a need to take on new challenges," Dorn says. Dorn’s team supports the process with career counseling and a plan that he customizes to the needs of each employee.
The plan has included helping employees get the education they need, as well as making networking introductions. M.D. Anderson also works within its salary system to cushion the salary reduction the employee might experience while they get started in a new field. By phasing the shift from one career to another, the employees can openly assess their new opportunities while using a safety net, and M.D. Anderson can secure a successful transfer of knowledge from the career-changing employee.
The other benefit for M.D. Anderson is the retention of a valuable knowledge worker. Dorn, who came from human resources at a manufacturing and distribution company, says that he installed a decentralized HR organization when he arrived to be close to the employees. With knowledge workers, Dorn utilizes formal and informal communication sessions to listen to and assess the employees’ desire to change jobs.
The picture is a little different at Keyspan Corp., an energy company that has more than 10,000 workers in locations throughout the northeastern United States. Its workforce has many, many years on the job. About two-thirds of employees are unionized and maintain the energy company’s infrastructure. The rest of the employee base includes knowledge workers, and within that group is a large staff of engineers. The organization wants to understand how—and how soon--the potential retirement of so many workers will affect its business. Elaine Weinstein, senior vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer, says that data on that population was a logical starting place for her.
"We are in the process of conducting anonymous worker surveys by business unit to see what their plans are," she says. "Then we can gauge the intentions, timelines and subsequent business impact of this retirement bubble we are facing."
Keyspan has systems in place to help employees who want to change careers within the company. The firm conducts skill inventories with its emerging leaders and high-potential employees and often uses "stretch project assignments" to allow employees to grow and try new positions. In addition, Keyspan uses rotation and a buddy system of "ambassadors" to help people train and learn new jobs.
Barbara Spitzer, practice leader with HR transformation and change management at Watson Wyatt, says that once companies compile data from their employee surveys, the next step is to look at work redesign. Spitzer says that process often helps to create new positions that would permit employees whose jobs involve physical labor to shift into positions that use their knowledge but take less toll on their bodies.
Can technology help?
Applicant tracking software and its ability to do keyword searches for job titles in résumés is a great timesaver for companies. But according to Kathy Barton, senior vice president of marketing and product management at Peopleclick, that technology is not very effective in screening career-changing candidates from outside the company, or in facilitating the movement of "recareering" internal employees.
"The best statistics we have available today say that the use of keyword searches by the major job boards result in matches less than 10 percent of the time," says Barton.
A combination of factors, Barton says, are fueling a change in the way technology facilitates the matching and career mobility process. She says that many companies realize that they need highly skilled candidates more than the candidates need them. Those candidates are loath to put up with a job-search process that doesn’t suit their needs. And if it’s true that more of those highly prized candidates will one day be career-shifting boomers, it’s clear that keyword searches for titles won’t work for very much longer.
With those trends in mind, Peopleclick developed a new matching technology based on skills and competencies. The system relies on candidates completing profiles that weigh a common set of skills and abilities. The profile is then matched against any number of positions that utilize the same skills. While the change is marketed as an improvement, it will not eliminate the possibility that either an internal or external career-changing boomer won’t be eliminated from the process.
"Sometimes boomers are overqualified and could be a good match for an area where they have no experience but are well suited" based on their skills, Barton says. The best practice for evaluating job-switching candidates includes the use of assessments that measure a person’s attitude and aptitude for the position, rather than relying on experience as a differentiator, she says.
"Most companies need assessments and technology to make great job placements and to encourage employee retention by offering recareering opportunities," Barton says.
Boomers drive the trend; companies benefit
As companies have become leaner and put their focus on what’s happening in the business in the short term, the concept of retaining employees by offering career changes is not often at the top of the agenda. More experienced employees can offer greater productivity and reduced learning curves through their ability to transfer the knowledge they already have to the new concepts they’re learning.
"Boomers can do more in less time; they have already made mistakes before and now they will avoid them," CareerXroads’ Crispin says. "Businesses have institutionally and unintentionally discriminated against people aged 40 and above. The boomers need to be ready to articulate why they bring value with their extra experience."
The boomers themselves have the ability and the responsibility to drive the change that they want, Crispin says. At more than 70 million strong, they have reputation for pushing change. If they want new careers, history says that they will probably get them.