Age and the job search

Seated around folding tables with name tags prominently stuck on their business clothes, two women and seven men listen to the orientation talk for newcomers.

From different walks of life, they share one common trait: They're out of work.

That is why they come to Businesspersons Between Jobs (BBJ), a nonprofit job-search group that meets every Monday morning at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in suburban St. Louis.

They listen to speakers, prepare rsums, and look over new job openings. Here, it's plain that age-discrimination still persists in the workplace.

Despite the steady rise of the US economy, companies still downsize, move, or go bankrupt. And when they do, more often than not, the older workers are some of the first to go.

At least half of BBJ's members are in their late 40s or older, a distinction they encounter a second time when they interview for new jobs. "You can see it in people's eyes when they look at you," says Dan Squires, a technical software programmer in his mid-50s whose last employer moved out of town. "It would be easier if I were in my late 30s or early 40s."

The problem is so pervasive that the group's volunteer job consultants tell older workers to leave their ages off their rsums and change phrases such as "over 30 years in industry" to "more than 15 years experience."

"Age discrimination is something that's out there, but you will never get anybody to talk about it," says one retired executive who now volunteers as a BBJ job consultant.

Typically, employers like younger workers because they can pay them less. But because age-discrimination is illegal, they find other reasons to reject older applicants.

Despite these barriers, BBJ has helped thousands of professionals find new positions since St. Mark's pastor, the Rev. Howard Gleason, founded the group in 1972.

At each meeting, BBJ posts job leads on a clothesline in the church gymnasium. Every six weeks, it sends out mini-rsums of its members to more than 5,000 employers nationwide. Volunteers man the phones, taking calls from potential employers.

BBJ's numbers have fluctuated with the St. Louis economy, peaking in the early '90s when more than 200 people packed the Monday sessions. Today, attendance adds up to about 70.

"Our job is to go out of business," says George Fish, BBJ's executive director. But new members arrive each week for orientation, and age is a consistent factor.

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