When Jobs Aren't Awarded To the Skilled

ONE by one, seven men and women who lost their jobs in midlife walk to a microphone in a Cambridge, Mass., conference room and tell their stories - sad stories of careers derailed, family plans altered, and futures put on hold.

``I worked for GE [General Electric] for 12 years until I was laid off,'' says the first man, a native of India who holds a PhD. ``Now I'm back at GE, but I'm working as an employee of Butler, a clearinghouse of GE. I have no benefits, no vacation, no holidays. Where is my retirement going to come from? Where am I going to get money to send my children to college?''

An acoustics engineer with more than 30 years of experience lost his job four years ago. ``I was the oldest, most highly skilled member of my department,'' he says. ``The younger, less skilled workers were retained. The company admitted that my salary was the reason they let me go.'' He adds, ``I'm having a difficult time pursuing an age-discrimination suit because courts are taking a very conservative position right now.''

Another four-year veteran of the job search, a woman who has taught at the university level, tells of having 201 job interviews - but no job offers. ``This week I will be hostessing in a restaurant for 10 hours at $5 an hour,'' she says.

A second woman, a software engineer, was laid off by Raytheon in 1983 when she was 55. ``This field is particularly venomous to older workers,'' she says. ``If you go to job fairs, you'll see that they're all children.'' She filed an age discrimination suit -

but lost.

A businessman says, ``I have too much experience in sales and marketing, here and abroad. I speak four languages, and I'm looking for a job.''

And so the stories go. What has brought these strangers together is a public ``speak-out'' at Radcliffe College on issues facing older workers, one of more than 500 events scheduled across the country to prepare for the White House Conference on Aging next May. Recommendations from these events will help to define strategies for the meeting.

The White House conference, designed for those 55 and over, will address subjects ranging from health care and economic security to productiveness and technology. At a time when downsizing falls hardest on older employees, workplace issues will almost certainly figure prominently on the agenda.

Here in Cambridge, the displaced workers attending this forum express sorrow and anger at the treatment they have received from employers. Some also rail at economists who consider a 6 percent unemployment rate acceptable.

``President Roosevelt thought everybody should have a job, and so did President Truman,'' says one man. ``You don't hear that anymore.''

Speaking for themselves and for legions of other midlife workers whose current ``job'' involves mailing resumes and waiting for interviews, participants suggest possible remedies. These range from getting Congress to close loopholes in age discrimination laws to boycotting companies that treat older workers unfairly. They also propose making age discrimination ``a hot item'' on every political ticket.

As expressions of the frustration people feel in fighting an invisible enemy, these ideas may or may not have merit. Yet at a time of massive changes in the American work force, it's impossible to point to any one villain or any one solution. People of all ages face new challenges in getting and keeping jobs as managers increasingly favor contract and temporary workers.

Making room for young employees while preserving jobs for senior workers requires a delicate corporate balancing act. Laying off higher-salaried employees in favor of lower-paid workers might save money initially. But in the long run it can produce a skills deficit that could have serious negative effects on the bottom line.

As the job-seekers with long resumes can testify: Experience is a terrible thing to waste.

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