Age Discrimination - 50 & Counting

Dear Management Doctor:

Sometime ago you mentioned that there is a shortage of planners. I am not sure about that but I did want to bring a related issue to your attention.

I am writing as part of a group of six California planners who are over 50 years of age. All of us have been looking for jobs, but have been unable to find one. We apply for every job that is listed in CalOpps/Planetizen, etc. and have done so since last summer. During that time, the six of us have had a total of four interviews. We are all well educated with good experience and references—although we never get far enough along to have our references checked. For the past few months we have followed each job opening by first applying for the job, then following through with the city to see who they hired. Because cities can be incredibly rude these days, (they almost never acknowledge receipt of a job application and many don't follow through after an interview) we have a hard time finding out when the job was filled. Nevertheless, we go into cities and ask a zoning question, then we inquire about their new hires. The new hires are always 25-45 with most under age 40. Some ads, especially ones for private planning firms, say "good for an early career person." Because of our failure to get senior level jobs we are applying for Planner 1 and Planner 2 positions. Some cities state that the applicant's experience must be equivalent to the job announcement; meaning, no older people can apply for the lower level jobs. Some of us have families to feed so we would take an entry level job.

Since every city requires that one give the year of their college graduation and usually the month and date of each of their previous employments, it is impossible to hide one's age.

One member of this group was called in by a Northern CA County Director. This director asked him point blank, " you think you are subject to age discrimination?" It was the first time he had heard this as a possible idea of why he wasn't getting interviews. This director had hired several older planners as contractors to help the county out — thinking it might be easier for older planners to get jobs if they were working somewhere.

I suppose we would need statistics as to how many older people are applying for jobs, but if we could get records of all the hires in X number of cities, we are willing to bet (based on the research we are doing) that 90+% of all planning hires are under age 40.

Is it retirement benefits that scare them away? Is it just the preference for the young in our youthful society? This has stunned all of us.

We believe that this is a serious management problem but one swept under the rug.

50 and Counting

Dear 50 & Counting,

It's a bit hard to respond without actual cases. However, I hope our readers can add to my comments below.

  1. As you know, age discrimination is illegal; but hard to prove.
  2. I do know many organizations that are having problems hiring experienced planners; particularly those with good management skills. I am frequently asked to supply names and next time I am asked I will casually inquire about age.
  3. I doubt that concerns for retirement payments are an issue.
  4. I have built my firm mostly on retired government employees who want to work part-time and are as sharp as and more experienced than the under 40's. I have even had one employee in the 80's.
  5. As some of you know, I am no spring chicken myself and I continue to turn down work.
  6. There may be a hidden bias to younger people. I find many of them extremely talented and full of energy. We old timers need to work to keep up and sharpen our skills.
  7. It sounds like your group is unemployed. Most advisers suggest that when at all possible, don't leave a job until you find another.
  8. It sounds like money is not the issue since you are willing to take lower level jobs. There are several firms in California that hire contract planners to place in various communities. It seems like they are always looking for people. I assume that some of these later lead to full time jobs in the community.
  9. I am a big believer in the fit of people, skills, personality, and environment. Each of you should take a close look at your experience and strengths to see where you would have the best opportunity. Also, some organizations will actually call a few references before they decide who to interview. Although there are a lot of planners in California, it is still a small world and reputation means a lot.
  10. You might find it useful to read Chapter 35 of my new ABZs of Planning Management, Second Edition, called Unemployment Blues.
  11. You should be able to find a planning job. However, the good news is the world is changing so fast that it is easier than ever these days to change careers.
I agree that many communities are rude in the way they handle job applicants. We find the same thing with responding to RFPs. It is not unusual that a consultant will spend $5,000 to $10,000 on a proposal with no thank you or response.

If any of the six want to call me, I would be happy to give what personal advice I can.

Best wishes,

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

Our County looks periodically to hire regular and contract planners who have some experience regardless of age (I am easily over 50 myself). I also believe that life experience can help an agency out even if people sometimes do not have years of experience on the planning side. If anyone would like to call me; please do. We are particularly looking for a planner right now who has some experience with managing large mixed-use projects and/or tracking and coordinating consultant charges and disbursements.

Our Agency is also going to be looking for a contract planner to handle some of our smaller projects for a year or longer so some of the existing Planning Staff can jump in on some of the larger scale work.

Art Henriques
San Benito County

I am the HR Director for the County of Lassen. I read the article addressing Planners over the age of 50 who were unsuccessfully seeking employment. We have an immediate need for a Senior Planner and do not use age as a factor in the selection process. In fact, I was hired by the County of Lassen after retiring from the Federal Government.

I received the article 3rd hand and would like to invite the "over 50" Planners to contact me directly concerning our vacancy. Obviously, the candidates would need to relocate to this area.

Or, if you are able to pass a contact phone number or email address on to me, I will contact them directly. In working with the Community Development Department, we have put our ad campaign on hold until I receive a reply to this request. If we there is interest in these positions, we will redirect our recruitment efforts.

Ron Vossler
County of Lassen County

I would like to respond to '50 and Counting' with a few observations that I hope will shed a little light on their dilemma.

I am currently managing a division of planners and technicians in a city planning agency. When I was hired for this position 10 years ago, I was 44 years old. Since then, I have hired several planners to work within my division, which is made up mostly of people under 40. I have had a fair number of applicants applying for Planner I and Planner II jobs that, in my best guess, were over 50. In my defense, I have done my best to not allow myself to judge anyone on the basis of age, but I will admit I have not hired anyone over the age of 50. I am not suggesting that there is anything 'wrong' with '50 and Counting' in terms of credentials, experience, or abilities, or those of his colleagues, but let me share a few thoughts.

  1. I must agree wholeheartedly with the Management Doctor with regard to the fit of people, skills, personality, and environment. My team enjoys success and the respect of the community due in large part to their complimentary skill sets, similar personality traits, and the working relationships they have established with one another. The 'well-being' if you will of the staff is of utmost importance to me. All other things being anywhere near equal, the job goes to the person I feel will be the best fit for the organization. Age has nothing to do with it. I think this also has an element of truth to it even when applying for director or mid-management positions. There, management experience should give you a leg up over younger applicants, provided that your management philosophy is compatible with the organization. While there are certainly many people over 50 who can bridge the generation gap and flourish in an office full of 20 and 30 somethings, I think the perception is that most will have a difficult time, and in these settings, there may indeed be a tendency to age discriminate. You have the experience, so make sure you showcase your people skills, collaborative skills, and team building skills.
  2. Right or wrong, whenever I see an application for a Planner II position from someone with decades of experience, little red flags pop up. Like it or not, we all carry a certain amount of personal and professional baggage. In most of the older folks (people my age) I have interviewed, some of this baggage hangs from their sleeves. Don't dwell on the past. Be straightforward about your employment record, but don't lament or whine. I would suggest that older applicants need to highlight their communicative skills, openness to change and new ideas, and be interested in how they can put their talents to use in the organization. A few have come across with the "been there, done that, got the T-shirt" speech, and personally, that turns me off.
  3. I like to feel that the person I hire truly wants the position and wants to be a part of the organization. When you are trying to find ANY job that can keep the bill collectors at bay, try not to let this show. We all know that planning is a mobile profession that almost requires relocation to move on to more responsible positions. But frankly, the process I have to go through to hire is a grueling and lengthy one, and I don't want to hire someone who is only looking for a paycheck, or that I think is going to continue to look for what they REALLY want while using the position as a placeholder for a year or two. That puts me back into the hiring process way too soon for my liking.
  4. Some older applicants have failed to keep up with technology. Even if you are applying for a management or supervisory position, many employers will give an edge to applicants with demonstrated abilities in various computer applications, GIS, etc. It's not enough to have only peripheral knowledge, because all those under 40 folks out there are well trained in this arena. So, if you need to and are able to, spruce up your technological expertise.
  5. This should go without saying, but take a good look at your resume. Does it reflect more than just your employment history? Does it drone on and on about every achievement? Does it have errors? I know this is old hat, but I can't tell you how often I have read (and I do read them all) poorly designed and poorly written resumes from people whose education and experience should give rise to a much more polished, professional document. Cover letters too - I had one man with a MURP and 10 years experience write that he would love to work for my company, and couldn't wait to learn more about the Philadelphia area. I don't work for a company, and am not located anywhere near Philadelphia. 'Nuff said.
I consider myself blessed that I have a position I absolutely enjoy, and a marvelous group of talented and dedicated co-workers that make it fun as well. I hope '50 and Counting' and the others are looking outside California, because there are planning jobs out there, and I wish them well.

Fifty and Fortunate

Just a thought for that group of '50-something' California planners having difficulty finding jobs. If age and experience is not valued as an employee; they are in a planning consultant. It gives the consultant instant credibility as a recognized expert, and clients usually are willing to pay more for that experience and credibility - especially in the area of expert witnessing and resolving controversial rezoning/land development issues.

I would suggest that all or part of the group consider options for setting up a consulting business together. Add in a young just-out-of-college planner to do the grunt work, and you're on your way! It's not that easy of course, but it may be a better option to make your own work than continue fighting for entry-level jobs.

Rodney C. Nanney, AICP

Thank you, Paul, a fellow "graybeard" for a great (and timely!) article and response. I know it can't cover everything, but the value of networks was not mentioned.

I am "double-nickel" and counting and have never gained a full-time job by answering a want ad (though I have responded to hundreds over my career). Opportunities came through professional colleagues recommending me to someone else and some as calls "out of the blue" when I wasn't even looking to change jobs. It turned out that people knew me from presentations at conferences, my work (paid and unpaid) in local and national professional organizations and civic boards, and from copies of my work that had been circulated or found on the internet. There is still "down time" but this means I redouble my efforts to be "seen and heard" and to keep current by speaking at conference sessions, taking a course, teaching a course, or even pursuing a new and current certification (CFM, LEED AP, etc). Perhaps there is something within the experience of the six planners and other experienced planners that people will want to hear, and pay them to work with them.

Best wishes to us all!
Robert Kull

I wonder if one of the other issues that these older planners are facing is the fact that they may potentially be working for a younger director. I believe that young Planning Directors may have a difficult time having an older, and probably more experienced, planner working for them. Young Planning Directors may feel threatened by having a staff member who probably knows and has experienced more, and therefore wonder if they (the young Planning Director) may be shown up by his/her older staff member. Also, I suspect some younger Planning Directors may feel uncomfortable hiring their "mother" or "father." I personally seek the more experienced planner when staff vacancies become available. I like the idea that they bring different experiences and perspectives to the position, can perform many tasks quicker than their younger counterparts, have the maturity to balance the reality of planning with the enthusiasm for what it can accomplish, and don't require training in office routines that so many younger planners have no experience with. But, then, I happen to be of that "older" planner generation.

You provided excellent advice as usual!

Mike Harper
Washoe County

Good article. I am nearing 50 and plan to work well into my sixties. I want to point out a recent article from the Management Doctor in which the writer talked about an incompetent manager and how in that situation the employer felt it was easier to keep the incompetent manager and let others do his work vs. firing that person. In this article, the response to correct this problem was that a younger person should be hired to replace the incompetent manager. Incompetence can come in all ages so to imply that a younger planner would not be incompetent is not correct and promotes a focus on younger workers. The more appropriate response should have focused on providing ongoing professional development to ensure that those at all levels are performing efficiently and effectively regardless of age.

Respectfully submitted,
Patrina Newton
Fort Worth

Your article was very timely. I am one of three Planners in a City who have been pondering this very issue.

Each of us are over 50, AICP, and have at least one Masters Degrees (one of us is almost a PhD).

Last year all three of us applied for the Assistant Director position in the City's Office of Economic Development when it came open due to a retirement.

We were half of the field of candidates interviewed. Of the other three, one was an African American architect over 40, one was a white male who looked to be over 40, and the last was a white male under 35. I am a white female, and the only female in the interview pool. The other two are both African American.

Guess who got the job? The white male under 35.

The three of us filed requests for review of the results with the Personnel Department, and, many months after the process closed, got letters saying they found no fault in the process, nor evidence of personal prejudice or collusion. They sidestepped the fact that since junior got the job, he has been in the Planning Department learning how to do specialized data mining and requesting coverage when he has made political foo-bars (such as presenting himself as the Zoning Chairman of a civic association at a public meeting rather than playing Assistant ED Director).

Two of us have filed a request for review with EEOC (I think the third will be doing so also).

It is quite scary to think that at 52, when I have reached Senior Planner level and am head of the State Planning Association, that my experience and training means squat.

Just a note to let your other correspondent know that California is not the only place where such things are happening.

To quote Ross Perot, "It's just sad."

Pat Maley, AICP

Your management notes on the experienced planners with difficulty finding work hit a chord with me. When I was looking for a position, I could not believe the attitude of HR departments to individuals applying for jobs. One jurisdiction included in its application a form to be filled out and self-addressed so that could be folded and mailed back to the applicant. It simply said: Status of Your Application, with a series of check boxes:

  • We regret that your application did not score as well as those we selected for interviews. Thank you for your interest. Your application will remain on file for six months.
  • We received ___ applications and will only be interviewing ____ people.
  • You have been selected for an interview on ___________ at _________. A letter will follow with details about the location, type of interview process, and any preparation you will need to undertake.
It wasn't personal, but at least someone checked a box and mailed it back to you.

Eric Toll