Some older workers re-entering the labor market struggle because of outdated skills or a lack of technologically savvy — not to mention age bias. A local program can help smooth their return to the workforce.
Rebecca Austin moved back to the Seattle area two years ago, excited to spend more time with her only son and start over after three decades in Honolulu.
But when she kicked off her job search, she was hit with a harsh reality: employers were not interested.
“I had never before had trouble finding a job, I didn’t anticipate that,” the 68-year-old said. “I was living off my savings, and they are gone now.”
While the region experiences low unemployment and employers are busy hiring, one cohort of workers that’s feeling left out of the boom is the 55-and-older crowd.
Employment resources for older workers
• Seattle Mayor’s Office for Senior Citizens 55+ Employment Center 206-684-0500
• AARP Foundation 206-624-6698
• YWCA Title V Employment Program206-436-8638
Some older workers struggle because they have outdated skills, are not technologically savvy or don’t know current job-search strategies. Others, including professionals, face bias from employers.
“Ageism is alive and well in the workplace,” said Kerry Hannon, a workplace expert and author of Getting the Job You Want After 50 for Dummies. “It’s illegal, but the fact is that it’s there.”
That doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless, she and other experts said. With the right help, support and strategies, older workers can still find employment.
“(Working later in life) is just going to be a part of the fabric of our lives unlike other generations before us,” Hannon said. “A lot of people keep working for the money. Other people are doing it because they want to.”
Twenty years ago, 30 percent of people age 55 and older held jobs. That number has grown to 40 percent now, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the last 10 years, the number of people age 55 or older who are employed shot up by 42 percent to 34.2 million.
The unemployment rate for people 55 and older was 3.8 percent in February, lower than the overall national rate of 4.9 percent. Economists attribute the relatively low unemployment rate to older workers who give up looking for work out of frustration, or are underemployed, settling for lower-paying or part-time jobs.
Many face tough challenges in the workplace and on the job search.
Strategies for older workers
Take a “good enough” or “bridge” job: Consider a job that is in another field, doesn’t pay that great or isn’t as challenging or prestigious as previous jobs, said Farai Chideya, author of several books including “The Episodic Career: How to Thrive at Work in the Age of Disruption.” The “good enough” job can be a placeholder until a better role comes along or provide income.
Network: Job seekers should tap into any professional or personal circles to let others know they are looking, said Kerry Hannon, workplace expert and author. Personal referrals are still an effective way to land a job or interview.
Consider appearances: Job candidates should present themselves as healthy, fit and energetic, Hannon said. That doesn’t mean people should hide their age, she said.
Audit skills: Job seekers should make a list of any skill or task they can perform, even things they haven’t done professionally such as cooking, Chideya said. That helps open up ideas on different types of jobs to pursue.
Update skills and training: Public libraries, community colleges and government employment agencies often offer free or low-cost training in using computers and social media. Workers can also find free online classes on sites such as Lynda, Coursera and Degreed.
Join a job-search group: Meeting other job seekers can provide support, ideas and resources along with keeping each other accountable and motivated, Hannon said.
Seek help: Nonprofits such as the AARP Foundation and government agencies offer numerous programs to help seniors of varying incomes and skill levels.
Volunteer: Hannon suggests finding a role that requires job skills. Working for free helps people leave the house, stay busy and keep their résumé current.
Source: Interviews with experts
Workers like Austin, who have been employed their entire adult lives, may suddenly find that employers don’t call them back after interviews — if they can land an interview at all.
Austin, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English, has done a variety of jobs: edited company newsletters, taught English, tutored students and worked as a secretary. She also frequently took on freelance gigs for extra income during her time in Hawaii.
Her experience submitting dozens of applications for jobs near Seattle over the course of two years left her stunned.
“I have very good experience and very good skills, and I’m not getting even an email back,” she said.
Last fall she saw a flier at a public library for a program run by the nonprofit AARP Foundation that helps seniors find jobs.
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The federally funded program, known as the Senior Community Service Employment Program, places low-income workers over 55 in a temporary, part-time job with a nonprofit agency while the participant gets help with a counselor to beef up skills and search for a permanent job.
The temporary assignment gives participants a chance to re-enter the workforce, make money and get current job references, said Simone Marrion, who runs the program in King and Snohomish counties.
Austin joined the AARP Foundation program earlier this year and spent a few weeks stocking shelves at a Salvation Army thriftstore. She is now doing clerical work for the AARP Foundation as her temporary job.
Marrion said the program now serves more than 90 people in King and Snohomish counties, and six to 10 people exit the program each month to take permanent jobs. But, the local agency has capacity to add about 60participants.
Many older workers often give up finding a job out of frustration, she said, because they don’t know help is available.
“People don’t have fresh interview skills or fresh job-search skills,” Marrion said. “They don’t know to use Idealist or Indeed or Craigslist. Applying for a job has changed a lot in the past 10 years.”
Participants in their late 50s and early 60s tend to be people who lost their jobs during the recession, haven’t been able to break back into the job market and are not ready for retirement.
Those in their late 60s and 70s, perhaps retirees, realized they needed to earn money to keep up with rising expenses.
Robbin Alexander, 59, of Kent hasn’t held a regular job in about 20 years while she cared for sick and elderly family members. She still cares for her ailing parents and occasionally for her grandson, but she wants to work part time.
“I don’t know what a résumé is,” she said at a recent information session for the AARP Foundation program. “I used to talk to people to get a job.”
Even jobs such as cleaning hotel rooms require a résumé, she said.
Participants come in to the AARP program at a variety of skill levels. Some have college degrees; others have never used email.
At the information session, Marrion recommended participants set up a Gmail account — it looks more current than Hotmail or AOL.
Making the best impression is crucial for older workers, Hannon said. Whether they admit it or not, employers harbor various biases. Some think older workers don’t have the stamina to perform day to day, won’t last long, don’t have up-to-date technical skills or will demand a high salary.
Workers can address those concerns by taking classes to learn new skills, staying physically fit and active and being flexible about compensation.
“People judge a book by its cover,” Hannon said. “You need to present a youthful and energetic appearance.”
Older workers also need patience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that workers age 55 and up spend 10 to 11 months looking for new work after leaving a job, compared with about four to seven months for workers age 16 to 34.
“If you don’t get a new job right away, you have a short window to get a new job before you end up becoming long-term unemployed,” said Farai Chideya, author of several books, including “The Episodic Career: How to Thrive at Work in the Age of Disruption.” “You don’t want to get stuck in a pattern of long-term unemployment.”
A stretch of being out of a job can be financially devastating for people who have lived paycheck-to-paycheck, but the psychological toll can be just as bad, she said. Many become depressed.
If necessary, Chideya recommends taking a “good enough” job — a position that pays less or is in another field. For older workers, compromising is often better than remaining unemployed and can lead to a better job down the road.
Allen Bauer, 72, of Shoreline also attended a recent AARP Foundation program information session. He would like to work around 25 hours per week until he turns 80.
“I need more money,” he said. “I didn’t put anything away for retirement … It definitely wasn’t the priority it should have been.”
Many people, like Bauer, didn’t have access to pensions or 401k plans and have little in savings. The National Institute on Retirement Security, a nonprofit research institution, reports that among working households, those near retirement have an average of $14,500 saved.
Others find themselves in Austin’s predicament: a long period of unemployment ate up much of their savings.
Austin said she was close to a financial “crisis point” before she started working through the AARP Foundation program. She lasted until now by paring costs down to a bare minimum.
She inherited a condo in Shoreline from her parents, so only pays homeowner’s association dues along with utilities, insurance premiums and basic necessities. She goes to the public library to use the Internet and check out books. She qualified for a free cellphone through a program for seniors and also visits a food bank regularly to fill her pantry.
She considers herself fortunate.
“There’s lots of people who can’t afford what I can afford,” she said.
Austin plans to put off drawing Social Security benefits until she turns 70 so she can receive the maximum amount, and she aims to keep working as long as she is physically able, which now seems more realistic than a few months ago.
“I’m just lucky that AARP was there,” she said. “I just didn’t see any doors open.”