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Helping Seniors Who Want Work

The biggest hurdles are job scarcity, age bias, and self-confidence, experts say

WHEN the career services department of the Women's Educational and Industrial Union announced a half-day workshop on ``Finding a Job When You Are 60-Plus,'' organizers expected about 60 men and women to turn out. But when the doors open on a Tuesday morning, the group swells to 80, filling the meeting room. Participants have come with notebooks and pens, questions and comments. They have also come with hearts full of hope, eager for how-to advice and can-do encouragement in the face of a tight labor market and lingering age discrimination.

``It's a great thing and a discouraging thing to have such a big turnout,'' says Elizabeth McDowell, assistant director of career services at the nonprofit organization. ``It indicates that there really are a lot of older workers who need this kind of assistance.''

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As the ranks of early retirees grow, so does the demand for ``this kind of assistance.'' Across the country, a network of workshops, counseling services, and job fairs is springing up to provide training, referrals, and support to older job-seekers. In Boston alone, groups include Operation ABLE (Ability Based on Long Experience), Freelancers Over Fifty, and the Advocacy Center for Older Women Workers.

Among those attending this over-60 workshop, nearly half are currently unemployed, according to Susan Jepson, director of career services at the Women's Educational and Industrial Union. Some retired voluntarily, only to find a year or two later that they needed or wanted to work again. Many were laid off or given early-retirement incentives. The group ranges from a woman whose last job paid $3.75 an hour to a man whose salary as a corporate vice-president had been $100,000.

But however diverse their skills and salaries, they share common needs. One of the biggest is confidence. Older applicants are often ``more timid'' than younger ones, Ms. Jepson finds. ``They say, `I'm over 50. I could never find a job.'''

They also tend to sell themselves short in interviews, according to Eileen Cooper, affirmative action officer at BayBank Middlesex in Boston. ``It's very important to go in there with the confidence of the experience you have. You have something to offer the company.''

To bolster confidence, employment specialists say, job-seekers must assess their qualifications and their objectives. ``We simply can't help you if you don't know what you want,'' says Bea Riley, manager of recruitment for Harvard Community Health Plan.

For Caroline Crockett of Boston, that kind of self-assessment proved difficult but ultimately rewarding. After a diverse career that included motherhood, copy editing, legal services, and a return to college in her 50s, she moved to Boston two years ago. She found a job, but left when she discovered it was not what she had expected.

Her next job search was not much better. ``I just floundered for months,'' Ms. Crockett recalls. She checked job postings at universities. She answered newspaper ads - everything from a security guard to copy editing, even though she did not want to get back into publishing. She even considered opening her own word-processing business. After attending seminars and job fairs sponsored by Operation ABLE, she sharpened her focus.

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``While I didn't know for sure what I wanted to do, I knew what I didn't want to do,'' Ms. Crockett says. ``I would walk into a place and think, `This isn't for me.' Once I started zeroing in on what I wanted - such as a small office and a pleasant, low-key environment - I was accepted for almost everything. I also attribute that to a positive attitude.''

Crockett now works 30 hours a week as a word processor for a small architectural firm. ``It's perfect - 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. They even have two cats,'' she adds with a laugh.

For those seeking full-time, high-salaried positions, the search can be more difficult. ``In some cases, people will have to take lesser jobs than they had,'' cautions Virginia Fitzgerald, an employment specialist at Operation ABLE. Ms. Fitzgerald tells of one 62-year-old client who was laid off from his job as a nuclear engineer. Rather than try to find another position in the same field, he decided to pursue a lifelong interest in baking. He will graduate from a technical high school program in June and ``has every expectation of making it as a baker,'' she says.

One of the biggest issues her clients face, Fitzgerald continues, is employers' concern about hiring ``overqualified'' workers. When overqualification comes up in an interview, she suggests, ``Throw the question back to the interviewer by saying, `That's very interesting. Could you tell me what you mean by that?' People can also say, `Well, a good company needs good employees,' or, `It's going to take me less start-up time.'''

J. Allyn Bradford, president of Freelancers Over Fifty, a Cambridge, Mass., network for professionals, offers other advice to members of his group. ``You must be willing to work for less, and to work on a contract basis,'' he says. ``Companies are willing to hire on a cost-effective basis if they don't have to pay benefits or any other kinds of overhead costs that would be involved with full-time employment.''

As important as these efforts are to help mature applicants, they represent only part of the solution. Employers themselves often need training and encouragement to become aware of the contribution experienced workers can make to an organization.

``There are some employers who will run as fast as they can the other way,'' says Anna Shenk, employment program manager at Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services Inc. ``There are others who know the benefit of an integrated work force, and they want to employ older workers.''

At the same time, Ms. Shenk says she feels strongly that what employers and applicants perceive as ``problems of age'' are actually ``issues of transition'' - moving from one job to another, or from one career to another, or from unemployment to employment. ``It comes down to self-confidence and knowing how to sell yourself.''

Caroline Crockett agrees. Speaking from the perspective of one who learned how to conduct a successful job search, she offers this advice: ``If you have a skill, hone it. Narrow the field. Eliminate everything you don't want to do. Be positive and upbeat. Once you get a real hold on what you want to do, go after it. Don't get discouraged. You've got a nice, long background behind you, and a lot of time ahead of you.''

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