More retrenchments could be looming as the economy slows, but older workers may have an edge.
Having ridden out past crises, they have both experience and resilience and should not be shown the door simply because of their age, said panellists at a roundtable discussion yesterday.
"You'd have assumed that older workers are at risk in a downturn but you could go back to the employer and say, 'hey, you know, I'm more valuable to you now because I've lived through the past three downturns and I can bring something valuable to the table'," said The Straits Times' manpower correspondent, Mr Toh Yong Chuan.
OCBC Bank's head of group human resources, Mr Jason Ho, agreed: "The older worker is the one with the experience in terms of actually working through crises and knowing how to deal with crises. This kind of experience is valuable and you cannot replace it overnight."
They were among seven experts who spoke at a session on creating an age-inclusive workplace culture, which was organised by the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) and The Straits Times and moderated by Straits Times business editor Lee Su Shyan.
Mr Alexander Melchers, Tafep board member and vice-president of the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), said the Republic has made significant progress in terms of employing older workers. The employment rate for residents aged 55 to 64 has gone up from 57 per cent in 2006 to 67 per cent today. Some four in 10 residents aged between 65 and 69 were still working last year, he said.
More can be done to continue to change the mindsets of employers, he added.
"We would like to see a significant trickle-down effect from leading companies, like multinationals which already have best HR practices in place," he said.
At OCBC, for example, where about one in three staff is aged 40 and above, a lifelong learning programme called Life Refresh@OCBC was launched this year to support older employees in picking up technology, financial planning, career planning and health and fitness. Students from local universities spent a day coaching staff on how to use social media applications such as Snapchat and e-commerce sites such as Airbnb and RedMart.
While small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may be willing to employ older workers, they may not be aware of how to improve and adopt best practices, said Mr Zahidi Abdul Rahman, president of the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Many do not have a human resource department and many bosses also do not have the time to attend human resource training courses.
"I hope big enterprises can give us good samples of good HR practices to follow," he said.
Still, he is aware of many SMEs which have put in the effort to accommodate their long-serving older workers, he added.
Mr Zahidi highlighted food manufacturer Asyura Paste, which planned the work day so that staff can knock off at 4pm. This way, they can make their way home earlier from the Jurong factory.
Such redesign changes are useful, but panellists agreed that fostering an inclusive environment starts with having the right mindset among both employers and employees.
Ms Chang Li Er, office manager at digital marketing firm Design Prodigy, said that while she hopes older workers will be given equal opportunities by firms, they also need to keep themselves up to date.
"The world is rapidly changing, so I have to be prepared to be open and even to embrace learning and picking up new skills," said the 56-year-old.
On the part of employers, bosses hiring older workers should also take into account the valuable soft skills they can bring from their past employment to their new jobs, said Mr James Tan, director of the National Trades Union Congress' U Live department for active older workers.
Dr Helen Ko, executive director of training consultancy Beyond Age, said respect is key.
"The idea of respect is very important to create that acceptance and inclusion in the workplace and not regard older workers as last-resort workers with an expiry date, and really integrating them into the company and even retraining them, developing them and seeing them as equal to any other age group."