Chicago businesses succeed in wooing senior workers

Demographics Prompt Labor Shift, Immigration Proposals

CRUSITA DOUNIAS and Juanita Kraft are on the leading edge of a change in American demographic and labor patterns that should help job hunters over 55. By the year 2000 the first string of post World War II baby boomers will be approaching retirement age. The proportion of Americans over 65 is expected to double between 1980 and 2000. That change is occurring at a time when the demand for workers, particularly in the service sector, is expected to far exceed the usual supply.

A number of employers are already gearing up.

Chicago's Marshall Field's, for instance, recently recruited both Mrs. Dounias and Mrs. Kraft with the help of Operation ABLE (Ability Based on Long Experience), an umbrella organization serving 35 older-worker employment centers in Chicago.

Mrs. Kraft, a former cook in a day-care center, was hired as a cook and has been working in the store's delicatessen. Mrs. Dounias, who formerly did the accounting and payroll work, now keeps time and voucher records for the mechanical services department at Field's. Operation ABLE, she says, supplied her with tips on r'esum'es and interviewing. ``I really wasn't prepared to go out and find a job,'' she says.

One of the toughest challenges is to convince senior job hunters, used to rejection, that they are really welcome and needed.

When Days Inn of America Inc. launched a policy in 1985 to recruit workers over 65 for its reservation centers in Atlanta and Knoxville, Tenn., its managers found advertising was not enough. Only by talking directly with senior citizens and by using apartment bulletin boards did they get a strong response.

Now one-third of the staff at the reservation centers, which had a 100 percent turnover rate, is made up of older workers. The turnover rate among seniors is a mere 1 percent. ``We recruited older workers as a solution to a problem and found they were more successful - wonderful, dependable, patient - than we dreamed,'' says Days Inn spokeswoman Shira Miller. The chain also actively recruits the disabled and the homeless, housing the latter in nearby hotels, she says. On May 5 some 126 Days Inns will host local job fairs, attended by other receptive employers, to recruit senior workers.

Atlanta-based Home Depot Inc., which sells home hardware supplies, also seeks experienced seniors for sales jobs. Retired electricians and carpenters make ``invaluable'' employees, says spokesman Lonnie Fogel.

Some companies which have offered early retirement packages are slowing the pace of departures and hiring retirees back.

Varian Associates, a California high-tech firm, allows those over 55 to work 20 to 32 hours a week, keeping partial benefits. Most workers remain in the same job, says spokesman Bob Holtcamp.

The Travelers Corporation, a Hartford-based insurer, has a job bank of temporary clerical and administrative jobs for retirees and recently opened it to other employers. Benefits are paid if 500 hours are worked in six months.

Some 25 percent of those retiring from Chicago's American Library Association return to part-time work, says human resources director Marla Powers Gibsen, who is helped in her work by an 84-year-old two days a week.

About half of the 3.4 million workers past 65 have part time jobs. Some find it hard to get anything else. Many don't want to jeopardize their work benefits.

Many older workers say they like the sociability and usefulness of a job. John Cerone, the 72-year-old director of security for a Chicago Days Inn, says, ``Not that I don't love my wife, but if I take two days off and stay home, I'm ready to climb the walls.''

Old myths persist for many employers. Though happy enough to hire older workers as temporaries to skirt benefit costs, many companies routinely view those over 55 as less efficient, less flexible, more apt to have health problems, and generally more expensive to support.

Yet numerous studies and the positive experience of firms who have hired older workers suggest otherwise. Older workers may, for instance, require slightly more training time in the use of new technology but studies indicate their ability to learn is no different from that of their younger counterparts. Employers with experience say older workers have the advantage of a proved work record and tend to be reliable, committed, and courteous.

``Older people have been getting a bum rap for years,'' says Dr. Jotham Friedland, a Chicago career consultant. ``A lot of companies aren't receptive, but I think they're just not aware of what these people can do for them.''

The Commonwealth Fund, a New York philanthropy particularly interested in aging and health issues, reports that more than 1 million Americans over 50, far more than Labor Department estimates indicate, are eager and able to hold down a job. Data on 50- to 64-year-olds gathered last year for the fund by Louis Harris and Associates suggest that only about 20 percent retire voluntarily. Those looking for jobs want them largely for economic reasons, but the majority already have health insurance.

``We've been through a decade of early retirements that have given seniors the idea we don't need them,'' notes Commonwealth Fund Senior Vice President Thomas Moloney. ``We've never needed them more.''

Yet job seekers over 55 will still face formidable problems. Service jobs will be easier to come by than professional posts of the stature and salary many once had.

For many older workers nontransferable benefits are another barrier. Companies work hard to keep such costs down, particularly in health care. Some have already exported a number of jobs overseas. Many prominent companies have joined the push for national health insurance. If a solution is not found, many seniors will take jobs just to pay health bills, says Dr. Frank Cassell, professor emeritus of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

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