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'Restless Retirees' Help Fill Labor Gap

Older workers, once spurned, are now courted for their know-how, aiding the economy.

Not long ago they were considered technological dinosaurs in a dawning digital age, the seasoned professionals shuffled aside in the corporate downsizing of the early 1990s. Today, America's 55-to-64 year olds are considered a virtual trophy in the workplace - one that is having a beneficial impact on the overall economy. This time around, their experience is their strength.

Over the past 2-1/2 years, more than a million seniors have traded their golf clubs and rose gardens for new careers. With the nation's jobless rate at an unusually low 4.9 percent - and expected to drop further today - they are helping to fill a growing labor gap in the United States at all levels.

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Indeed, older workers are now landing jobs at twice the rate of their younger counterparts - making a significant contribution to keeping labor costs in check and inflation at bay.

"We're going after them," says Burt Slatas of Olsten Staffing Services in Melville, N.Y., one of the nation's largest temporary recruiters, referring to senior citizens. "The labor supply is so tight, it's getting harder and harder to find people, and companies are not willing to sacrifice."

To be sure, some are troubled by "restless retirees' " dramatic comeback, saying they provide high talent at a low price.

Most recruiting experts see the trend as an encouraging one that is forcing companies to focus on what's important, like skills and the intimate knowledge of a company's ways, not age.

"There used to be a stigma against hiring older people," says Steve Hunt, an industrial psychologist with SHL, a Cleveland, Ohio, human-resource and management company. "In the current market place, it's like, 'Get me somebody that can do the jobs. Age bias is a luxury companies only get away with when there is a real wealth of candidates."

Consider the case of Robert Levinson of Boca Raton, Fla. After decades of owning and operating big hotels in south Florida, he wasn't ready for the tennis courts and bridge games. So, instead of retiring, the septuagenarian immediately went to work as a vice president of sales and marketing for Lynn University in Boca Raton.

"Most people turn off their body motors and think it's time to let go," he says. But "creativity never stops," he says, and his new job "provides the discipline I need to be creative."

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Older workers were hardest hit by the white-collar recession of the early 1990s. But in the go-go late '90s, gone is the clear-out-the-dead-wood mentality that led companies to shed layers of mid-management talent. The labor supply has become tight, recruiting experts say.

Numbers tell the overall story. After reaching a high of 5.1 percent in 1991, the unemployment rate for the 55-to-64 age group fell to 3 percent in June, according to the Labor Department.

This year, older Americans are getting new jobs at an annual rate of 4.1 percent - more than double the 1.8 percent for the overall population.

This older group of Americans makes up only 10 percent of the work force but they account for 22 percent of nation's job growth since 1995. And older women are a big part of the story: 51 percent of them work, up from 43 percent in the last decade.

For companies, seasoned pros offer reliability and maturity at a time when qualified professionals are hard to find.

During America's downsizing era, "older workers used to be thought of as unadaptable and set in their ways - 30 years in the past in a world where technology was rebirthing the nation," says James Paulsen of Norwest Investment Management in Minneapolis. "All of a sudden they've become popular again."

Gone is the era when employees stayed with one company for decades. So firms are hungering for the seasoned experience of older workers.

Take Jay Taylor. He spent three decades, including 10 years as head of the Mount Prospect, Ill.-based Stimsonite Corp., which makes reflective markers for roads. But when he retired in March, he got restless. Now he's taken up a consulting job "coaching" younger managers, drawing on his vault of experience for a full-time paycheck.

"Companies that downsize think they know what the people they downsized did," Mr. Taylor says. "But because they were long-time employees, they did a lot more than their job description said."

He says seasoned employees' strength lies in their knowledge of the company, the friendships they were able to establish.

Despite the shining opportunities, some seniors still complain about discrimination.

It's still twice as difficult for people 50 years and older to get interviews than for the younger folks, observers say. And some say greedy companies may take advantage of seniors' willingness to work for less money.

A changing job structure

Hiring older workers makes economic sense. Today, companies tend to rely on "outsourcing" more, hiring former managers and other professionals on a contract, sometimes for long-term consulting assignments.

Retirees have the experience and the eagerness to work. And they often come with pensions from former employers and face fewer financial pressures, their children through with college.

"They bring a wealth of experience and a set of economic circumstances that makes it easier for them to accept these situations," says Dave Opton, who founded Exec.U.Net, a Norwalk, Conn., the networking and career information organization for senior executives.

As a result, even if they don't learn as quickly as younger workers and may not be as technologically well versed, their experience and intimate knowledge of corporate culture amply make up for the deficiencies, experts say.

Elderly workers are a hot commodity across the board at a time of labor shortage and changing economy, for high-level management positions as well as very specialized tasks ranging from accounting to financial planning.

"Older people are very reliable," says Olsten's Mr. Slatas. "They're really performing, their work ethic is very strong."

They can be attorneys recruited to settle a one-time legal dispute, accountants lured in to help during tax season, financial analysts assisting a small company set up a financial-reporting system, or marketing specialists needed to launch a new credit card during the holidays.

Companies often think in the short-term, says Mr. Opton of Exec.U.Net. "It's not like companies are developing a marketing plan for the next 10 years."

Calling all COBOLers

Against all odds, older Americans are also joining the high-tech sector. Twenty-five years ago programmers used a language called COBOL to install many big companies' computers.

Now, to fix the inability of many computers to recognize the year 2000, proficiency of the long-forgotten COBOL is needed. And cutting-edge experts can't help. And in the frenzy to fix "the 2000 problem," older programmers are in demand. They represent the single-biggest market at New Boston Systems, a high-tech staffing firm in the Boston area.

"What's ironic is that these people were forced out by the younger hot-shot programmers and now, they're writing their own ticket," says Bruce Netland, president of the company.

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