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Latecomers to the Career Game


Kevin Marron
The Globe and Mail
November 23, 2005

Beth Kertesz was never more conscious of the age gap between her and other new employees at the mutual fund firm AIC Ltd. than on the day she shared her memories of the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series.

She soon realized that none of her co-workers remembered anything about it -- because it happened before they were born.

"I felt old. Most of the people being hired were just out of university," says Ms. Kertesz who, unlike her twenty-something colleagues, started her career in her mid-thirties, having chosen to stay home for nine years raising three children before that.

And many other women are doing the same thing. While the focus over the past many years has been on the growing number of women who put off having children to have careers, there's a flip side of choices: women who put off having careers to have children.

And for employers, people who have delayed their career entry represent a new and growing pool of talent, the experts say.

"Employers need to rethink hiring, training and promotion policies if they are successfully to recruit and retain professionals who have delayed their career entry," concludes a report from three professors who looked at people who started their careers later in life in the academic world.

In the survey of 2,000 U.S. university faculty members recently written up in the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business Journal, more than 17 per cent said they had put off their academic careers in order to start a family.

The study also found that "an increasing number of young dads (close to 5 per cent of the men surveyed) are staying at home and being primary homemakers," which means they are also now holding off their careers, says Prof. Carol Colbeck of Pennsylvania State University, who co-authored the study with Penn State colleague Robert Drago and Anne Bardoel, an associate professor at Monash University in Australia.

Prof. Colbeck, an associate professor of education and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State, believes there's a similar trend in other professions.

And Prof. Chris Higgins of UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business says that demographic trends suggest there will likely be more people in coming years launching their careers at a later stage in life.

"I think it's something we're going to see a lot of as baby boomers are at a stage when children are moving out," and parents have time to turn to other pursuits, he says, including careers left behind or never started.

Coupled with this, he says, the abolition of mandatory retirement makes it more attractive for people to start a career in their forties or fifties, knowing they may have an opportunity to stay in the work force for longer.

Ms. Kertesz, now 43, is part of this pool of talent. After raising her kids, she got a foot in the door at Burlington, Ont.-based AIC with a temporary placement through employment agency Manpower Inc. for a part-time data entry job, which she parlayed into a full-time position.

She subsequently won a promotion to supervisor and then moved on to Manpower two years ago, where she is now a staffing specialist.

She's soon to become a manager at its Hamilton branch -- having discovered she could lead and train people in the workplace as well as she could handle toddlers at home.

Prof. Colbeck, now 54, also speaks from personal experience.

She was 38 years old, with two children in junior high school, when she launched her academic career by enrolling in graduate school. She was 44 -- and sending her oldest son off to university -- when she started as an assistant professor and was appointed to her current director's position in 2002, one year after winning tenure.

But delaying a career entry does not come without difficulties.

Ms. Kertesz's experience of being socially removed from co-workers is typical of people who launch their careers later in life and one of the reasons they have a harder time getting ahead, Prof. Colbeck says.

"The kind of social activities that may enhance one's career and take place outside the work force are very different for people in their 20s than for people with older children," she says.

"They can go out for drinks after work and there are differences in the kinds of conversations and social bonding that might occur. And you're at a disadvantage. You miss out on networking opportunities because you have much heavier demands on your time at home."

Still, these people represent an opportunity for enlightened employers who don't hold biases against people, particularly women, who choose to stay home with children before building careers, Prof. Colbeck says. She says this bias often has a lot to do both with sexism and ageism, with employers believing that "this person is over the hill before they've begun."

The flip side of this is that late entrants to careers tend to be highly motivated in attempting to overcome these barriers, says Prof. Drago, who teaches labour studies and women's studies.

"And, as with any group that's been discriminated against, the employer willing to go against the grain will find talented people and an enormous amount of commitment from those employees."

George Hood, president of the Toronto campus of Herzing College, a career-oriented technical college, agrees with this assessment. He says his college has been very successful at placing mature students in high-tech jobs and he has subsequently received very good feedback about them.

"Everybody talks about age discrimination, but in a lot of cases it can work in reverse and prove beneficial," he adds.

"In the technology industry, they are looking more and more for people with good communications skills and leadership abilities. A lot of those things come later in life."

Kathy McLaughlin, a Vancouver-based partner with executive search firm Ray & Berndtson Canada, agrees that maturity and life experience are attractive qualities highly valued by employers.

But, she warns, "it is a risk for an employer to take someone whose profession has been child rearing and put them in an entry-level management training position."

That's why late entrants, like anyone starting off, probably need to look for a place on the bottom rung of the career ladder, and that first job can be hard to get, says John Rich, president of Toronto-based Affordable Personnel Services Inc. and a director of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services.

"If your résumé is blank, how can you prove what you can do? We can't place anybody permanently who hasn't got experience. No company is going to pay me a fee for somebody with zero experience."

Mr. Rich suggests seeking a temporary placement, as Ms. Kertesz did, as "a bridge into the work force."

Deborah Bakti, Manpower's regional director for southwestern Ontario, says temp work can give someone who has never been in the work force or out of it for years a crash course in the culture and skills of today's workplace.

Late career entrants will be more successful if they pick the right career, Prof. Colbeck adds.

She says her study showed that a far higher proportion of academics had made a successful late start to their career in the field of English than in chemistry. This suggests people who have been out of work might find it harder to break into highly technical professions .

"In a field such as education, sometimes in business and in the academic world, you can minimize the disadvantage. In a field such as chemistry and other careers where there is a pressure to get a fast start, people who have late career entry can feel even more of an anomaly."

More success may come with careers in fields such as sales, where people are judged by their performance, not their credentials, she says.

Prof. Colbeck says she knows of many examples of people who have started their careers late and made it to senior partner in a law firm, distinguished professor at a university or a company vice-president.

Prof. Colbeck's own story provides an example of the motivation that can push late-career entrants to get ahead.

When she was first appointed as an assistant professor, she says she was spurred on by the fact that the president of the university was just two years older.

"We feel we must work all the harder, all the faster to attain career goals more quickly than those who started at an earlier age," she says.

And she says employers should pay heed. "Employers seeking a competitive advantage in the hiring and retention of talent will find ways to attract and hold individuals in these diverse circumstances.

"Employers who continue to require that individuals fit the ideal worker model and ignore these facets of the work force will be left behind," she and her colleagues warned in their study.

The demographic trend will also force employers to look more seriously at hiring people who have launched their careers later in life, Ms. McLaughlin adds. "The talent pool is declining somewhat, so employers do need to be more enlightened about how they view people who, for all the right reasons, have taken time out of the work force."

Get ahead after a delayed career start

How can you best prepare to start a career later in life? Here are tips culled from the experts:

Make sure your professional or technical training is up-to-date. For example, a computer science course 10 years ago could be irrelevant today, whereas taking a course now in a skill that is in demand at a career-oriented school could lead directly to a job.

Maintain an interest in your chosen field or prospective career while you are at home with your children by reading journals, consulting on-line sources, attending meetings or seminars.

Do volunteer work and participate in community activities. Update your résumé to reflect the skills and experience you have acquired while out of the work force. Give yourself credit, for example, for the skill-set involved in child-rearing, as well as for any community activities that you may have engaged in.

Network with people working in your field to ensure you are aware of changes in workplace culture and current issues confronting your profession.

Start with a temporary job as a bridge into the work force. Temp work can provide a crash course in current work cultures and needed skills, get you a foot in the door and give you an opportunity to prove yourself to a potential longer-term employer.

Choose a profession or workplace where your skills will be in demand and adequately remunerated, no matter what your age. Sales people on commission, for example, are paid on the basis of performance and many professions have set fee structures; those who depend on promotion for success may be passed over because of their age.

© 2005 Ray & Berndtson



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