Silver linings: the benefits of hiring mature workers in tourism

Mature-age workers offer a lifetime of skills that can help tourism businesses.

They’re sometimes called ‘silver workers’ or a workforce ‘grey army’. Whatever the description, staff over 50 have a wealth of skills and experience. They’re a source of talent that can help to address ongoing labour shortages, including in Australia’s visitor economy.

Older workers can also mean retirees returning to the workforce who may only want to work part-time or short-term. The Australian Government recently increased support for older Australians who wish to continue working by changing the Work Bonus. This raised the income level pensioners can earn without affecting their benefits.

Ideal in the visitor economy

‘Soft skills’ in interacting with others are especially valuable in tourism. People with lengthy experience in the workforce have often honed these social and personal skills. They tend to be loyal and stable, and great mentors to younger staff. (Source: COTA Insurance, The benefits of the over 55s in the workplace, accessed 2 April 2024.)

Two tourism businesses describe how hiring mature-age workers has made their operations more resilient.

Restaurant 360Q, Queenscliff, Victoria

In 2022, Barry Iddles of Restaurant 360Q had a big idea. He began purposefully recruiting retirees and mature-age workers. He’s never needed to rely on costly agency staff to plug worker shortfalls since.

That’s just one of the many benefits of hiring mature Australians, Iddles says. His older staff have been quick to learn, and they have great customer skills. ‘They’ve been absolutely amazing,’ he says.

Iddles’ decision to hire older workers came amid post-COVID staff shortages. An accidental encounter sparked the idea.

He was clearing tables at a friend’s restaurant, when a customer asked him how old he was. He realised if he had the energy for the job at 66, other seniors would.

The restaurant’s regular winter postcard included an invitation to retirees to apply for positions. Iddles distributed 42,000 postcards across the Bellarine Peninsula and wider region. These attracted numerous applications – and plenty of media coverage.

Two years on, Iddles still employs older workers in his restaurant and upstairs function room. Among 70 staff, there are 7 mature-age Australians on the roster. They typically work 3- to 5-hour shifts.

Because of pension rulings, some work only a shift or two a week. Others may work more and no longer rely on the pension.

None of this mature-age group has a hospitality background. Instead, they’ve been nurses, retail workers and more.

A man standing in front of a table holding a tray with a glass. Behind him is a floor to ceiling window with a water view.

Restaurant 360Q employs several mature-age workers, including Ken, who is in his 70s.

Among them is waiter and dishwasher Kenton, 68, a former food importer. When COVID upended his business and retirement plans, he needed to find a job. He is one of those who works more shifts at Restaurant 360Q.

Susie, 74, is a former shop-owner who had recently moved to the area. For her, the job has been a way to get to know people and rebuild her confidence after COVID lockdowns.

Another staff member, Ken, came to 360Q because of his wife. At a lunch, she told Iddles her husband was thinking of applying, but he didn’t have a CV. ‘He was 73,’ says Iddles. ‘I said, at that age you’d have some life experience, and I wouldn’t need to see a CV!’

That experience and a thorough training program have seen everyone slot right in. Older staff have forged strong bonds with younger employees – not just at work, but outside it. The camaraderie across generations has made the team a well-oiled machine.

The Australian visitor economy is still facing labour shortages. With no university students in the region in winter, Iddles is looking to take on more returning retirees for the season.

‘Our population is getter older,’ he says, ‘and I would recommend this to every other employer in Australia. It’s vital. It gives an amazing balance in the workforce. It’s just been so successful.’

M&G Hotel Group, South Australia

Several years ago, M&G Hotel Group didn’t hire so many older workers as housekeepers. The group’s experience during COVID led to a rethink.

Director of Operations Michelle Davis points to the physical demands of housekeeping. ‘You’re making beds, you’re carrying linen up and down stairs – and vacuum cleaners,’ she says. ‘We were always apprehensive, I guess, to hire more senior to this role.’

Today things have changed at this family-owned business with 9 hotels in South Australia. Two of the group’s most valued housekeepers – Barbara and Bev – are 72 and 66. Davis calculates that just over 25% of the group’s staff are over 50. That has, at times, included retirees returning to the workforce.

Davis says qualities learned through decades of work can make mature-age staff so valuable.

‘They are the most reliable,’ she says of her experience. ‘They know our standards. They understand the game and can handle pressure. I can’t teach that calmness under pressure. I can’t teach people to be reliable.’

South Australia had fewer COVID lockdowns than Australia’s eastern states. However, M&G Hotel Group still had to let some workers go. It kept others busy with longer-term projects.

Coming out of the pandemic, M&G found itself with a fantastic core group of loyal staff. And it noticed that these staff were mostly older. That prompted Davis to pay more attention to more mature-age candidates. ‘My mindset has definitely changed,’ she says.

The physical nature of housekeeping jobs is now managed by:

  • asking the right questions at the job interview
  • assigning staff to the most suitable hotel property (say, with fewer stairs)
  • rotating staff onto lighter duties, if needed
  • appropriate training and policies.

One aspect of these roles – the use of technology – has been slightly more challenging, Davis smiles. However, through training, reception staff and housekeepers have all mastered apps and tablet computers. M&G Hotel Group has gone paperless for tasks including check-in and housekeeping lists, for sustainability.

‘I’ve told my trainers to be patient about this,’ says Davis. ‘The great thing about employing someone from an older generation is their customer service. They are just brilliant with people. They can think on their feet. They have experience.

‘That is innate in someone, and I can’t train that. So, I hire people for those qualities. Then we take the time to teach them technology skills.’

Unlocking talent for Australia’s visitor economy 

Building a secure and resilient workforce is a priority of THRIVE 2030, Australia’s national strategy for the visitor economy.

Mature-age workers bring benefits from a lifetime of experience. They have transferable skills useful in the tourism industry. They are resilient, with the ability to relate to a variety of people. 

Changes to the rules around the Work Bonus give Age Pensioners an incentive to work more hours. These changes support mature age workers employed in a variety of sectors, including tourism.

We have more information to support you in recruiting and retaining older workers

Growing the visitor economy

THRIVE 2030 is Australia’s national strategy for the long-term, sustainable growth of the visitor economy.