International Herald Tribune

When gray is better than green

Sebastian Vallbracht, a German entrepreneur with a budding consulting business, has spent the past year scouring Europe for candidates for scientific and financial consulting jobs. New graduates need not apply, however. The people he wants must be at least in their 40s, preferably in their 50s or 60s.

With three other partners, Vallbracht founded VMVO Senior Expert Consultancy last year. The idea, Vallbracht said, is that the world's leading consultancies are filled with bright young people straight from business schools; but when it comes to hands-on experience, they can't match someone who has been in the business for decades.

He has signed up 90 freelance experts for specific projects. Their average age is about 55. On a continent where early retirement has long been regarded as a way to free up jobs for younger generations, Vallbracht's consulting business is an example, albeit an extreme one, of a business seeking to use seniors, not sideline them.

Faced with the problems of aging societies - creaking pension systems, rising health care costs and a shrinking tax base - more and more organizations are pressuring governments to increase the number of seniors in the labor force.

This can mean making it more difficult for older workers to leave the job market - by pushing back retirement ages, for example - or enticing them to return, by providing more possibilities for part-time work.

"Seniors need flexibility," said Christiane Robert, the president of Seniorflex, a nonprofit group based in Brussels that lobbies governments. "They no longer want to work 48 hours a week. But they want to work a bit, in some cases because they need the money."

Many European countries have laws that are intended to protect older workers but actually end up hurting them, Robert said. One example is that companies are often required to offer more generous severance packages if they lay off older workers - making them wary of hiring an older person in the first place.

Today, the percentage of people aged 55 to 64 who hold jobs varies widely among developed countries, from 70 percent in Sweden, 65 percent in Japan and 60 percent in the United States to 41 percent in Germany, 38 percent in France and 29 percent in Italy.

Although unemployment is high in many countries, older workers are likely to be in higher demand as the working population of Europe starts to shrink. In 2004, there were more deaths than births in Austria, Germany, Greece and Italy.

When older workers leave the labor market prematurely, it is a "loss in terms of productivity for the nation," said Michel Delannoy, the founder of a federation of organizations in France that seek to promote senior employment.

Delannoy, whose background is in the computer industry, said he had recently received a call from a large French information technology company asking him whether he knew people with expertise in a specific piece of design software.

"I said: 'You were the ones who invented the software. Why don't you have anyone who knows how to use it?"' Delannoy said.

All the senior staff involved in the project had been laid off in a recent round of restructuring, he was told.

Vallbracht said senior workers often could spot problems much faster than junior ones. He said he did not worry about potential reverse-discrimination claims, because he hires the consultants as freelancers who work independently according to their schedules.

"I don't think those laws apply to freelancers," he said.

One of his first clients was a pharmaceutical company that is developing a drug to prevent strokes. It is based on an anti-clotting chemical secreted by bats when they bite their prey. The company needed help with the technical side of bringing the drug to market.

Vallbracht put Hartmut Osswald, a 64-year-old researcher and professor of pharmacology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, on the case.

Osswald advised them on how to structure their clinical trials to make them acceptable to regulators.

Osswald agrees with the philosophy of using the expertise of older people.

"If you have the telephone number in your head already, it goes a lot faster than if you have to look it up in the phone book," he said.

July 6, 2005

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International Herald Tribune

The Workplace: A bright light for the gray, Part 2

... Two weeks ago this column featured the story of VMVO Senior Expert Consultancy, a Swiss-based start-up that hires only specialists in their 40s, 50s and 60s. In response to that article, older readers from France, Germany, the United States and Israel wrote to ask about other agencies, organizations or companies that specialize in hiring or placing senior workers. The Paris-based Victor Val Dere requested more information: "As a 55-year-old financial translator working in France, I also find my only option is to freelance these days," he said. The good news is that a number of employment-related organizations have cropped up in the past two or three years, catering to seniors looking for work, though almost all of them are based in North America. Companies like Toulouse Intérim Senior or VMVO Senior Expert Consultancy are rarities in Europe ...

July 20, 2005

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Personnel Today

Swiss recruiter turns over old leaf to end brain drain

A recruitment firm in Switzerland has been set up with the objective of using older workers, not sidelining them. Sebastian Vallbracht, a German who studied at the University of London, said the idea for VMVO Senior Expert Consultancy emerged when he was a student and noticed that recruitment consultants trying to hire young talent were not much older than the candidates. "There was something wrong with that concept," he said. "What struck me was that they had little experience themselves." He discussed this with his professors and was encouraged to start a consulting business. "The current business trend of forcing highly qualified experts into early retirement as a cost-saving measure is worrying, and has proven to be a bad strategy in the long run," he said. So far Vallbracht has signed up about 110 senior experts for specific projects.

August 9, 2005


Europa se rende aos trabalhadores maduros

Cresce a percepção entre as organizações de que a experiência é fundamental para o crescimento Sebastian Vallbracht, um empresário alemão com uma firma de consultoria iniciante, passou o ano passado esquadrinhando a Europa em busca de candidatos para vagas de consultoria científica e financeira. Mas os recém-formados não precisavam se candidatar, porque ele procurava pessoas com no mínimo 40 anos e, preferencialmente, na casa dos 50 ou dos 60 anos. Juntamente com seus três sócios, Vallbracht fundou em 2004 a VMVO Senior Expert Consultancy. A idéia, disse, é que as grandes firmas de consultoria estão cheias de jovens inteligentes vindos diretamente das escolas de administração, mas que, quando se trata de experiência prática, não conseguem se igualar àqueles que estão no negócio há décadas. Ele contratou 90 especialistas freelance, com média de idade de 55 anos. Num continente onde a aposentadoria prematura há muito tempo é considerada uma forma de abrir espaços para as gerações mais jovens, a firma de Vallbratch é um exemplo, embora extremado, de uma empresa que busca usar os veteranos, e não deixá-los de lado.

Defrontadas com os problemas de sociedades em processo de envelhecimento, sistemas de pensão desconjuntados, crescentes custos da assistência médica e uma base tributária em fase de encolhimento, mais e mais organizações estão pressionando os governos para aumentarem o número de veteranos na força de trabalho. Isso pode significar tornar mais difícil para trabalhadores mais antigos abandonarem o mercado de trabalho, por induzi-los a voltar, proporcionando-lhes, por exemplo, mais possibilidades de trabalho de meio período.

Muitos países europeus têm leis destinadas a proteger os trabalhadores mais velhos mas que, na realidade, acabam prejudicando-os, dizem especialistas. Um exemplo é que freqüentemente se exige das empresas que paguem uma indenização mais generosa se despedirem trabalhadores antigos, o que faz com que elas se mostrem cautelosas em contratar pessoas com mais idade. Quando trabalhadores mais velhos deixam o mercado de trabalho prematuramente, isso é uma "perda em termos de produtividade para a nação", disse Michael Delannoy, fundador de uma federação de organizações da França que procura promover o emprego dessas pessoas. Delannoy disse ter recebido recentemente um telefonema de uma empresa francesa de tecnologia perguntando-lhe se ele conhecia pessoas com experiência numa determinada peça de software de design. "Eu respondi: 'Foram vocês quem inventaram o software. Por que não têm ninguém que sabe como usá-lo?'" Toda a equipe de funcionários veteranos envolvida no projeto havia sido demitida numa recente rodada de reestruturação, explicou o empresário.

July 8, 2005