Executive search

'Too old' to find a new job? Think again.

July 11, 2013: 11:39 AM ET

Worries about age bias often keep people in their 50s and 60s from embarking on a job hunt. But these days, seasoned managers are in demand.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I wonder what you and your readers think about my situation. After 20-plus years rising through the ranks at a Fortune 500 company, I turned around a small division and made it profitable in 2008, and have been running it since then. Now my business unit is being merged with a different operation, as part of a restructuring. I've been offered a very generous retirement package, and I'm willing to take it, but I'm nowhere near ready to stop working. At 61, and in excellent health, I feel I have at least 10 or 15 highly productive years ahead of me.

My concern is, will potential employers agree? I've been told I "don't look my age" (a backhanded compliment, for sure), but how marketable am I? Should I leave dates off my resume -- the year I graduated from college, for instance? Do you have any advice for me? -- Still Kicking

Dear SK: "If you're good at what you do, age isn't an issue," says Charles Wardell, president and CEO of executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. "Look at Warren Buffett. He's 82, and nobody's saying he should head out to pasture." True. Berkshire-Hathaway (BRKA) investors, among others, probably wish they could clone him.

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At Witt/Kieffer, headhunters are finding that employers increasingly want managers with a decades-long track record of success. Consider: In 2012, about 14% of the CEOs the firm placed were over age 60, up from 3% a decade earlier. For C-suite jobs overall, the figures were about the same: 13% over age 60 vs. 3% in 2002.

Those big jumps are no fluke. According to the latest stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment declines with age. Last month, the jobless rate stood at 7.6% for 25-to-34-year-olds; 5.9% for ages 35 to 44; and 5.7% for the 45-to-54-year-old cohort. The jobless rate for people 55 and up, at 5.3%, was the lowest of any age group.

Granted, that's much higher than the unemployment rate for people 55 and older in pre-recession 2007 -- a tiny 3.1%. But on the other hand, for proof that experience is king, contrast that current 5.3% with the rate for new college grads (ages 20-24): a whopping 13.5%.

Since you turned around a troubled division -- a highly marketable skill anytime, but especially in this still-shaky economy -- your job hunt should be pretty smooth sailing, as long as you approach it with care, Wardell says. First, line up references at your current company who will vouch for your achievements: "At your level, strong recommendations from colleagues and higher-ups are crucial."

Then, when you speak with recruiters and employers, "get very specific about what each employer needs and how your skills fit," Wardell suggests. "The key is to make sure that what you bring to the job is exactly what they're looking for." Putting in the time and attention to find precisely the right fit can prevent hiring managers from bringing up the dreaded "O" word (for "overqualified").

Don't worry if you have to take a step down in title or pay to get a foot in the door at a company where you really want to work, Wardell says: "It's a mistake to get hung up on titles. Vice president, director, or some other title, who cares? And if the starting pay a company offers is a few thousand dollars a year less than you've been earning in your current position, don't make that a sticking point, either. You never know where you'll be, in both rank and compensation, 18 months down the road when you've had a chance to show what you can do."

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As for whether you should fudge the dates on your resume, or leave them off altogether, Wardell says not. "So many employers consider age to be an advantage now, there's no reason to hide it," he notes. "Be very upfront about it, and then focus the discussion on what you bring to the job that competing candidates -- whatever their date of birth -- may not be able to offer."

Wardell speaks from firsthand experience, by the way. A decorated Vietnam veteran who held management jobs at American Express (AXP), Citi (C), and elsewhere earlier in his career, he was 66 when he got the top job at Witt/Kieffer in 2011. "I was picked over other, much younger candidates," Wardell says. You can be, too.

Talkback: If you're 55 or older, do you believe you've encountered age bias in a job search? If you've changed jobs recently, what helped you get hired? Leave a comment below.

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