Oldies recruitment agency proves a hit

A non-ageist employment agency has found a niche in the market. By Simon Walsh
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The Independent Online
IF, AS AN older person, you send off 400 job applications and receive only two replies, and no interview, the notion of age discrimination is bound to rear its ugly head. Normally you are faced with the decision of either resigning yourself to your fate or else standing up and fighting it.

But the 50-year-old man that this happened to had another option: he joined an employment agency that specialises in catering for the older person. Second Shift, of Blackrock, Ireland, placed him in employment - and it has done the same for many others like him.

Now in its fourth year of business, it was founded by Vanessa Rojack as an avowedly non-ageist employment agency. It started when Ms Rojack, a qualified recruitment consultant who has operated in both the UK and North America, found that after putting paid work to one side to look after her five children for 10 years, she realised there was no way back in.

"I needed to get back to work. I thought it was a matter of simply going out to get a job. I didn't think for one minute that I'd have a problem. I found that no matter where I looked for work, I was getting no response, and I couldn't understand why. In the supermarket there always seemed to be the same sort of faces around, people who were probably filling their trolleys with food they didn't need just to pass the time. I thought: 'these are people like me, my age group'. I was 40 at the time, so could it be an age thing? I realised it was.

"What's more, I was angry. I thought: 'this is nonsense. If there was an agency out there that had the placing of mature workers as its stated objective, I would have signed up'."

There wasn't one, so Ms Rojack set out to fill the gap. The local council at first failed to grasp the point, rejecting her grant application because there were "enough employment agencies in the area already". But she canvassed several TDs (the Irish constitution's equivalent to MPs) for support in an appeal. She won the appeal and eventually got a small grant.

"I received pounds 10,000 for the first year, which gave me and a co-worker worker a salary of pounds 5,000, but nothing to start the agency with. I had to find a base, pay rent, and equip an office.

"I couldn't get money from anywhere else, and I was a lone parent with five children, but I had such faith in what I wanted to do that I went for it."

Ms Rojack is keen to stress that while the stated aim of her agency is to accentuate the worth of experience and maturity of outlook to the employment market, Second Shift is not an oldies' ghetto."Because we stipulate no age barrier, I can't say I am placing only mature people. I'm placing juniors looking for their first job; then you have the people in-between wanting to change jobs. Basically, there is is no age barrier, although we do focus on the mature or the very young job seeker."

Not surprisingly, she has more job seekers on her books than she has employers, yet progress has been made. She now has more than 100 employers, a third of whom regularly come back to her. She has found that the discrimination that once decreed the working woman's place to be in the typing pool is now paying dividends for mature female job seekers at the expense of their male counterparts.

"The number of companies looking for mature people has increased. Ninety per cent of the jobs are for women because they are mainly secretarial. Men have a difficult time these days, particularly those who don't have keyboard skills. Making yourself computer-literate in your forties and fifties isn't easy.

"A lot of women will already have learned basic keyboarding on mechanical typewriters, so they don't have that much of a problem going on to computers."

She tells the tale of a woman who came to her agency looking for a job. Aged about 40, she was highly qualified but underpaid in the position she was in. She had been for an interview for another job and was asked how she felt about working with younger people. But the next question threw her: would she consider dyeing her (greying) hair black?

This story underlines the crux of what Second Shift aims to combat. While regulations can determine what an employer can stipulate in an advertisement, the one factor no law can govern is attitude. "It will always be at the discretion of the employer whom they employ. If they don't want to engage a mature worker they will find a reason."

Quite where this attitude prevails may come as something of a surprise. "I find that the younger the employer, the more open they are; but the older the employer, the more loath they are to take on a mature worker."

Meanwhile, for Ms Rojack, the mission continues. "When you see people who could be an asset to a company, so demoralised and devastated, it's infuriating. I want to make more people aware, to knock on as many doors as I can, and be given a platform from which to speak to bigger companies on behalf of the mature worker."

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