There were more than 800,000 open jobs in Canada in July, but Toronto-based Jane Di Biase says she can’t get past the interview stage — if that.
“It’s been really hard,” says Di Biase, whose last job was as a senior manager for client services.
“When (employers) see your photo or your age or your tenure or your education timeframe, I find, like, instantaneously you get an email saying, ‘You have great experience and but we’re going with another candidate.'”
Di Biase is 60 and that, she believes, is hobbling her job search.
Canada is facing a historical labour shortage. In the middle of the summer, employers in accommodation and food services alone were trying to fill 132,800 jobs, accounting for the highest job vacancy rate the industry has ever seen (11.6 per cent).
Retail trade has the second-largest number of job vacancies in July (101,300), and the health-care and social assistance sector was staring at a whopping 97,800 positions, according to Statistics Canada.
But the labour market crunch extends across the economy, according to job recruiters, with companies scrambling to attract or retain workers with perks and steep pay bumps.
And yet, some older workers, like Di Biase, say they can’t get callbacks.
Di Biase, who found herself out of a job in the spring of 2019, says she’s been job hunting on and off since then. She estimates she has applied for between 20 and 30 jobs.
“I did take breaks,” she says of her employment search, adding that she struggled to keep her spirits up with employers constantly passing her up despite her experience and credentials.
“You do get discouraged.”
Older workers struggling to re-enter labour market in the pandemic
Age-based discrimination in the workplace was widespread in Canada even before the COVID-19 pandemic, says Ellie Berger, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Nipissing University and author of Ageism at Work: Deconstructing Age and Gender in the Discriminating Labour Market.
Companies often exclude employees aged 55 and up for promotions and training opportunities, says Berger, who’s been researching the issue for more than 25 years. But it’s really when older workers lose their job and have to try to find a new one that workplace ageism takes the heaviest toll, she says.
In one longitudinal study spanning several years, Berger found older workers who’d experience prolonged joblessness often experienced depression and other mental health issues, a phenomenon she calls “identity degradation.”
“They’re feeling this feeling of being degraded, being considered old and useless,” she says. And that state of mind, in turn, hampers workers’ ability to find new employment, she says.
Pandemic-related layoffs may have left more Canadians struggling with age bias as they struggle to rejoin the workforce, according to Berger, who says she has heard anecdotally of companies laying off older and higher-paid staff as a cost-cutting measure in the earlier stages of the health emergency. But now that employers are hiring again, many are keen to replace senior employees with lower-paid, younger workers, she says.
Berger says she has served as an expert witness on a couple of recent ageism cases with the Ontario Human Rights Commission and expects the volume of lawsuits centred around age discrimination to increase.
But older workers struggling with ageism also include some who decided to quit or retire early in the pandemic, says Kathryn Meisner, a Toronto-based career and salary negotiation coach.
Pandemic-related job upheaval has prompted some baby boomers in sectors like health care and the airline industry to pull the trigger on early retirement, for example.
Meisner says she’s seen some clients who quickly rethought that decision either because they realized they weren’t ready to stop working or because they found out they couldn’t afford it. Often, though, re-entering the labour force is an uphill struggle for those aged 55 and over, she says.
It doesn’t help that, in Canada and other countries, the pandemic has also triggered a resignation boom, with record numbers of workers pursuing new careers and opportunities.
“(Older workers) are competing against a new crop of people, usually younger people,” says Meisner.
What job candidates can do about ageism
If you’re worried about ageism, keep in mind that common tactics to avoid revealing your age — such as omitting school graduation dates in your resume — may backfire, says Berger.
“When I spoke to employers … they actually talked about that being a red flag of being an older person if there is no date on the resume,” she says.
Applying for jobs for which you’re overqualified also tends not to work, as employers will often feel like you’re not a good fit, Meisner says. Instead, whether you’re trying to make a lateral move or switch careers, you should focus on working your professional network.
“Those are people who know you,” she says. “Oftentimes they are willing to help you.”
It’s also important to freshen up and tailor your resume. With algorithms often in charge of taking the first crack at sifting through job applications, a resume that doesn’t include the right keywords may never be seen by a flesh-and-bone hiring manager, Meisner warns.
And if you’ve been out of a job since before the pandemic work-from-home boom, make sure you’re comfortable using the technology that supports remote work, such as video calls and workplace chat applications.
For her part, Di Biase says she was using Zoom before the pandemic and has always been tech-savvy.
Her long spell of unemployment is throwing a wrench into her family’s financial plans. With two children who are going to get married soon, she and her husband, who is retired, will have to tighten the purse strings, she says. Helping the kids buy a house, for example, doesn’t seem feasible anymore.
Still, she isn’t ready to take down the picture on her LinkedIn profile just because it shows her age, she says.
“I want to work for someone who wants (my) knowledge,” she adds.
In the meantime, she has become a certified life coach and recently took on her first client. While she continues to look for a job in client services, being a life coach could become the fall-back plan, she says.
“I get joy from it,” she says.