Next stop: a new career

A booming economy drives seniors back into the work force

Clyde Hunt thought he faced the same old story - out of a job, with his age considered more of a barrier than his experience was considered a benefit.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Hunt thought he'd fulfilled a dream when he co-founded a business.

But the partnership turned sour and he found himself unemployed. Like many workers in their 50s, he had few job prospects.

Then he found Queens Surface, a private bus company in the New York City borough of Queens. The company hired him as a driver three years ago, and he's been behind the wheel ever since. "The only time they asked my age was when I filled out my application," he recalls.

Although age-discrimination still permeates the American workplace, Queens Surface and a handful of other companies seek out older workers rather than shun them.

As baby boomers mature, the idea of hiring older workers may become the norm in a few years, employment experts say.

"We're going to see far more people in the workplace in their 50s, 60s, and 70s than we did before," says John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm based in Chicago.

"Employers don't have the same luxury discriminating against older workers as they once had," adds Sara Rix, senior policy adviser for the American Association of Retired Persons in Washington, D.C.

"Boomers themselves are going to put pressure on employers" to eliminate age-discrimination, she says.

Employers ahead of the trend range from retail chains to high-tech firms offering everything from hourly work to full-time careers.

"We openly court older workers, especially with trades experience," says Don Harrison, spokesman for Home Depot, the Atlanta-based building supplies chain. "It's long been regarded by Home Depot as a darn good employment practice."

Such help attracts the small contractors who make up a third or more of the company's sales.

"There is a real benefit to keeping experienced workers in the industry," adds Peter Greenberg, administrative vice president for bus company Queens Surface. "With greater maturity and greater experience, you're able to operate a bus more safely."

Nearly 40 percent of the company's drivers have passed the half-century mark.

When experience pays off

Leonard (Ole) Lidstrom was self-employed and 69 when the federal government canceled the contract he had been consulting on. "I can't imagine how I could have gone out in the marketplace and tried to get a decent job," he says.

Instead, a friend introduced him to SM&A Corp. in Newport Beach, Calif. The company's proposal-management division, which helps companies assemble proposals for government contracts, latched onto Mr. Lidstrom because of his technical and management background.

"The more skills that you have and the broader your experience, the more value you bring to a proposal team," says Tom Haller, the company's senior vice president of human resources.

Roughly half its employees are 55 and older; 20 percent fall into the 65-and-older category.

Such success stories are beginning to pierce the myths surrounding older workers - often perceived as less productive, less flexible, and less useful in terms of long-term potential than younger workers.

In reality, researchers say, senior workers tend to be more loyal, more dependable, and, according to one survey, at least as productive as their younger counterparts.

Some observers, such as Mr. Challenger, believe age bias is already on the wane. Nowadays, he says, his 50-and-older clients take no more time to find a new job than their younger counterparts. And age-discrimination suits filed with the federal government have fallen by nearly a quarter since 1993.

Other observers aren't so sanguine.

"The economy is breaking down the barriers but not the attitude," says Sheldon Steinhauser, a Denver consultant who helps with companies on diversity. "Everybody can say that they've dealt with this area in their diversity work, but ... it gets a quick pass. It's been lost in the diversity agenda."

A question of benefits

Older workers also often cost more than their younger colleagues. They demand more pay. And they soak up more benefits.

According to estimates by Wyatt Co. (now called Watson, Wyatt Worldwide, a human-resources consulting firm headquartered in Bethesda, Md.), pension benefits for a 55-year-old worker cost an employer roughly seven times those for a 25-year-old. Health benefits run two to three times more, the company calculates.

To get around that problem, some companies pay only part of workers' health benefits. Others, such as SM&A Corp., don't offer health benefits at all. But since it pays much higher than industry averages, the company has no problems attracting experienced older workers.

Another hurdle for older workers: Some studies suggest they may need extra time to learn new skills. Manpower Inc., the Milwaukee-based temp agency, solves that problem by offering self-paced, computer-based training, so workers can take all the time they need. A quarter of its temps are over 55.

"Older workers offer very high quality performance," says Lisa Morgen-Barrientos, a company spokeswoman. "Now that you have a tight labor market, you can tap into this golden resource."

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