Job Search

Older workers offer soft-skills edge

by Dr. John McFerran, PhD, CMC, CPsych, FCHRP

After years of being told that they would be politely ushered to the sidelines of the working world to make room for younger, more technically savvy employees, older workers appear to have made a comeback when it was least expected.

In these tough economic times, many organizations have turned to experienced workers to fill employment gaps, especially in part-time and entry-level positions that were traditionally given to young, untrained workers.

It is not uncommon to see jobs for cashiers, greeters, serving staff, shelf stockers, delivery persons, grocery baggers and handyman contractors go to workers over the age of 60 instead of those under 25, for a number of reasons.

Part-time work is often appealing to retired persons who want to remain active, find a meaningful way to contribute and supplement their income without having to commit to a stressful, full-time position. From an employers point of view, hiring an older worker can also have many pluses. They tend to be competent and reliable, inherently understand employer expectations and usually do not require much on-the-job training.

Older workers also best their younger counterparts by using the total sum of their life skills and work experience. Things like attitude, work ethic, teamwork ability, problem solving and commitment -- also known as soft skills -- are highly valued in the workplace.

It may have taken a recession to bring it into focus, but employers now see that while technical expertise gets a job done, soft skills are what build a productive work environment, create loyal customers and develop a company's competitive advantage. Unfortunately, soft skills cannot be learned from a textbook. This reality came to light for one Vancouver businessman who set out to hire newly gradated engineers for his firm last year. Upon screening "top of the crop" applicants, he was disappointed to realize that they may have had impeccable academic records and technical credentials, but they performed poorly at the job interview. Many lacked the basic skills needed to interact with others, communicate confidently and grow into assertive team leaders.

The eye-opening experience led him to start an after-school course for high school students. His goal is to show youth that developing soft skills is equally as vital to their future career success as good grades and a well-crafted resumé.

Young people can benefit from what older workers can teach them, even if it's a lesson as simple but as resonant as knowing that your everyday attitude and actions help create perceptions about you. It determines the way people engage with you and what kind of impression you leave on them. Apply this knowledge to a job interview, an important meeting or the opportunity to interact with a customer and soft skills can be powerful indeed.

If you are unsure about what kind of soft skills you can offer an employer or need to identify areas that can be improved, take this quick litmus test. Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being never and 5 being always):

  • Do you smile and make eye contact when greeting people?
  • Do people say you are enthusiastic when making presentations?
  • Do you show up on time for appointments and meetings?
  • Are you able to effectively convey messages in reports, memos and emails?
  • Do you return phone and email messages on the same day?
  • Are you comfortable with contributing your ideas and opinions to a group?
  • Do you admit it when you have made a mistake?
  • Are you able to modulate the tone of your voice and interpret the tone in other's voices?
  • Are you willing to go the extra mile even when it is not convenient or expected?
  • Do you consider the impact of your decisions on others before making them?

The higher your answers, the more you understand the role that soft skills can have in boosting your personal and professional performance. Regardless of age, it is never too late to develop the skills that make you valuable in the workplace and help deal more effectively with others.

-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, PhD, CMC, C. Psych., F. CHRP, is founder and president of People First HR Services Ltd. For more information, visit


This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press.