Too old, or old enough?

Too old, or old enough?

Remember how you heard about President Kennedy's assassination? If you do, and you're seeking work as a logistics professional, good luck. For many companies, anyone old enough to remember where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, is too old.

The fact that many companies are reluctant to consider job candidates in the 50-plus age bracket is not new. Anyone who has attended an annual conference of the Council of Logistics Management has encountered numerous out-of-work logisticians, many with years of experience, seeking to make or renew contacts.

Even so, I was struck by the most recent CLM newsletter to cross my desk. The cover article's headline: "Help Wanted: Experienced in everything .. . . Only low-mileage models need apply." The article discussed today's difficult job market for older logistics pros, and indicated that their problems have increased.

Lynn Failing, vice president of Kimmel & Associates, an executive search consulting firm in Asheville, N.C., says the situation isn't unique to logistics. He says the hiring environment has been "candidate-rich" for logistics and other professional positions since the dot-com bust four years ago.

"There are always good companies that want talent and quality leadership and don't care if the person is 55 years old," he says. But many companies are taking the cheaper route and saying, "Instead of looking for a quality executive, let's find some fresh kids."

Some companies prefer to hire two younger, less-experienced candidates instead of one seasoned professional, Failing says. And many are seeking "promotable" candidates who are "no more than at the mid-point in their careers."

Then there's the "green-widget syndrome." Many hiring managers are playing it safe, limiting their searches to candidates with experience at competing companies. A manufacturer of green widgets will ignore candidates whose background is in blue widgets - even if their skills are highly transferable.

In their defense, companies everywhere are feeling intense pressure to cut costs. Older employees, in logistics as in other fields, tend to be higher-priced. And we've all met veterans who have retired on the job, failed to keep pace with industry developments or know only one way to do things. Older professionals who have worked for only one company face a particularly difficult job market.

So what should a logistics professional do? Actively manage your career, Failing advises. Stay current with industry developments, keep your skills sharp and stay in touch with professional contacts. "Unless you have family money, your career is your chief financial asset, and you should manage it that way," he says.

What about companies? Failing is struck by the gap between the entrepreneurial talk and the risk-averse hiring practices of many companies. He be-lieves they cheat themselves by refusing to consider older candidates, or those with good experience in other fields.

Many companies, for example, are reluctant to consider an older applicant who's willing to make a lateral or downward career move or take a pay cut. Or they believe, sometimes with justification, that younger professionals who have grown up with computers are more comfortable with the information technology that's so central to logistics management.

Failing says he's persuaded many corporate clients to consider "quality candidates who are productive, energizing and understand what drives numbers," even if they're past 50, gained their logistics experience in a different industry or are seeking a lower-level position.

Older job candidates tend to be less self-absorbed and more self-aware, he says. They usually have a better understanding of their skills and limitations, and of what's important in life. "Often, they're at the point in their lives at which they're not interested in being a CEO or in trying to cross another bridge too far. They know what they do best."

Having been around longer, they're also less prone to think that nothing important happened before they showed up. Their experience makes them better able "to look at far-flung data points and recognize patterns" that might produce opportunities or pitfalls. This comes naturally for some people, Failing says, but "most of us need the experience and knowledge that comes only with gray hair or no hair."

Experienced executives also tend to have a better understanding of what makes people tick, and of the need to inspire their staffs to embrace change. "A lot of the kids don't get that," Failing says. "They say, 'Look at the numbers, they're great, let's go.'" They forget that "people make organizations work. Technology is only a tool."

Joseph Bonney is deputy editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (973) 848-7139, or via e-mail at jbonney@joc.com.