Older workers an asset in skills shortage

00:26, Apr 28 2014
Shirley Watkins
NOT GIVING UP: Shirley Watkins admits here friends think she's mad.

At 80, Shirley Watkins is the oldest employee at local training company Skillset. Yet, she does not think of retiring, or, as she puts it, "giving up".

"There's no need to give up. What for? What's next?"

The bubbly customer relations manager has worked for the company for about 23 years, and has been the sole earner in her household for 30 years after her husband retired at 55. She says she keeps working so she can pay for her regular overseas travel, and to keep her brain active.

"If you let your brain and mind just settle down to retirement, the brain is very quick to react. It says 'fine! I'm off the hook'. But if you keep pushing it, there's no limitation."

Watkins is one of a growing number of older New Zealanders who keep working beyond the retirement age.

The number of people aged 65+ in the labour force jumped from 25,000 in 1991 to about 130,000 in 2012, according to Statistics New Zealand.


Minister for Senior Citizens Jo Goodhew says the biggest growth will occur between 2011 and 2031, as the baby boomers move into the 65+ age group.

Watkins looks nowhere near 80, and seems to have unlimited energy. She often breaks into a belly laugh and her eyes shine with excitement when she talks about her coming trip to London in a few weeks.

Among her retired friends, she's an oddity.

"I've beaten them by 10-15 years.

"My friends think I'm mad."

But she considers herself lucky to have a job, and enjoys working with younger people.

"I stand up for young people, they're absolutely amazing. They've been brought up with technology, and they are willing to help me."

She says she learns from them, and sometimes they learn from her, too.

"You have to respect what other people can't do and just see if it is really as hard as they think it is. Very often with a laugh and looking at it in a different way, you've turned that full stop into a comma."

She compares learning to deal with new technology to trying a knitting pattern.

Her employer, Skillset managing director Ralph Brown, says he values Watkins' work ethic.

"You couldn't have a more engaged team member," he says.

"She knows our clients and she thoroughly enjoys talking to people on the phone. She's genuine and our clients enjoy that."

Brown says that older people have a very strong work ethic. But with Watkins, "age is irrelevant".

"It's engagement and energy that really determine whether people are valuable employees or not."

He says Watkins "has the energy of a 20 or 30-year-old" and has adapted well to new technology.

Brown says employers who resist hiring older people are "missing out on valuable talent and experience and value".

Goodhew agrees.

She says employers in the Canterbury region should be more open to employing people over 70 as a part-solution to the skill shortage looming in many industries.

"As labour and skill shortages bite, businesses that retain their skilled older workers will get the jump on their rivals."

Watkins says she has been brought up through "the old school where you were always expected to work".

She started helping her parents with their business back in England at age 15, and has worked since then in various professions including real estate and modelling. She stayed at home to raise her four children for 15 years, but says being a housewife was "damn hard work".

"Women of my generation went to work, had the children, got home, got the shopping and cooked. It's not making a big deal of it."

Although Watkins loves her job, she says working five days a week, about 30 hours a week, means a quiet social life.

"You're quite happy to hit that chair at night, turn on the television if it's not already blaring away, and fall asleep in front of the television. That's what you do."

But even then, Watkins can only think of one reason she would retire. "That's what I say to my boss: 'when you find I'm not cutting the mustard, then I don't want any sort of fizzle. I'm out, and you go out with dignity. But it hasn't happened as yet."


Number of people aged 65+ in the labour force nationwide:

In 1991: 25,000 - one in 16.

In 2012: 130,000 - one in five.

By the mid-2020s: projected to increase to one in three

Source: Statistics New Zealand

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