At first glance, the men and women gathering at a Boston office on a Friday morning look like participants at a business conference. Most carry briefcases, and all are dressed for success - the men in sport coats and ties, the women in tailored outfits.
But a sign reading "Job Fair for Mature Workers" tells a different story. These people, whose ages range from 45 up, are looking for jobs. Armed with rsums and determination, they hope the 25 employers represented here will focus on their skills, not on the number of birthdays they have celebrated.
For despite growing numbers of older workers, many in this group find it very difficult to get hired. They must counter employers' stereotypes about aging and a corporate preference for younger, lower-paid help.
"Most older workers have a fantastic attitude," says Rickie Moriarty, executive director of Operation ABLE, the nonprofit group sponsoring this unusual fair. "They're extremely willing. The frustration comes because the market is so competitive. There are tons of accountants, tons of marketing people, tons of human resources people. So an employer has a wide choice."
To help them compete, groups like Operation ABLE (Ability Based on Long Experience), which focuses on workers over 45, offer everything from workshops and computer training to networking and counseling. Two or three times a year, Ms. Moriarty and her staff also stage these job fairs. Each event usually attracts 300 to 350 job seekers.
Fairs increasingly popular
The fairs are also increasingly popular at the seven other ABLEs around the country, says Joan Cirillo, director of employment services. Although she can't track all the matches that result, six weeks after Boston's last fair she knew of at least 20 hires.
On this particular day, openings range from secretaries and accounting clerks to budget analysts, programmers, and product managers. Some positions are full time. Others are temporary or "temp-to-hire" - temporary positions that could lead to permanent jobs.
Ms. Cirillo believes attitudes toward older workers are improving slightly. As one indicator, she says that she could not accommodate all the employers who wanted to be included in the job fair. "Many employers will seek us out," she explains. "They say they want a more mature employee who is responsible and has the ability to step right in."
But talk to the applicants themselves and a more somber picture emerges. "I think the problem is, many companies don't want to hire people in their 50s, because they're laying off people in their 50s," says a woman named Loretta, who is too embarrassed by her presence here to give her full name. Explaining that she has been looking for an administrative job since December, she says, "They're looking for younger people. But often a younger person doesn't stay that long."
Her friend Lourdes, who also gives only her first name, nods in agreement. "I spent 10 years in my first job, and 10 years in my second," she says. "I don't even call in sick unless it's an emergency. I'm really committed. But it's hard to convince companies that it's not just words."
Joel Warsof of Malden, Mass., whose field is electronics, outlines another problem. "Technology changed so fast, it really outdated my skills," he says. Yet a six-to-nine-month certificate program to improve his resume would cost at least $5,000.
Other participants share the midlife challenge facing Neil Ross of Hanson, Mass. Mr. Ross, whose career has been in sales, says, "I'm willing to change fields, but how do you do that without starting at a lower level? Everybody's got expenses built in at a certain wage. If you've been making $60,000, and now you're being offered $25,000 to $30,000, something suffers."
What also often suffers, employment specialists say, is mature workers' own view of themselves. "Too many older workers accept the mesmerism of the world," says Marie Walker, who found a job at BayBank five years ago through Operation ABLE. "They think just because they're a certain age, they're not valuable."
In her current role as an intern with the group, Ms. Walker assures job seekers that opportunities for training exist. After they enroll and learn computer and office skills, she says, "There's a confidence about them that they can go and look for a job."
For their part, employers express enthusiasm about these job fairs. Karen Rogers of Norell Services in Boston says she hired people last year "with absolutely great success."
Barbara Day, an employment specialist with the Central Artery Project in Boston, adds that she has found candidates here today for secretarial and administrative posts.
Calling the event "very worthwhile," Ms. Day says, "People can come to one place and get a feel for what the market is. A lot are hesitant at first, but you talk to them and get them motivated to talk to other people. It gives them ideas. It gives them confidence."
Moriarty offers this advice to business leaders: "Employers ought to read the excellent studies that have been published about the qualities and traits of older workers," she says. "They need to recognize that if they have a diverse work force, they will have higher productivity."
TIPS TO IMPROVE YOUR PROSPECTS
Mature job-seekers can improve their prospects by following these tips, offered by Operation ABLE:
*Be sure you have an up-to-date resume.
*Be computer literate.
*Keep answers in an interview clear and concise. If interviewers need to know more, they'll ask for more.
*To avoid employers' comments that you're overqualified, make yourself more marketable by conveying a willingness to compromise on salary and status.
*Show a high level of energy, but don't be overbearing. Sometimes employers get put off by too much willingness, which can come across as desperation.
*Look in the help-wanted ads to see who the major employers are and who is hiring. Even if the job you're looking for isn't listed, a large ad means the company is doing well and will have positions in areas that aren't advertised. Employers in software and mutual funds often run full-page ads, and likely also have other openings.