Older workers pursue job-search skills

Laid off after long careers, they must adjust to today's job-seeking scene.

M. Spencer Green/AP
Job fair: With nearly 5 million laid-off Americans now receiving unemployment benefits – an all-time high – many older job seekers are looking for work for the first time in years.

After a 25-year career in property management, Betty Clark received a pink slip last July. For the first time in a quarter century she had to start job-hunting, this time in a vastly changed employment universe.

"The difference is like night and day," says Ms. Clark of Boston. "When I went into property management, you would type up your résumé, go to a prospective employer, fill out an application, and leave your résumé. You met people. Today you're doing everything electronically. You're losing the personal connection."

It is a feeling shared by many longtime workers who have been laid off recently. Although they have accumulated decades of skills and knowledge, they must take a totally new approach to finding a job.

"Some need serious assistance in getting back in the workforce," says Joan Cirillo, executive director of Operation ABLE of Greater Boston, a nonprofit that helps those 45 and over get back to work. "There's such a need for resources that will help older workers."

Clark's desire to enhance her skills has propelled her into a 10-week class at Operation ABLE called Operation Service. She and a dozen other students are learning proficiency with computers. They also meet with employers, attend job fairs, and receive tutoring in résumé writing and interviewing.

"Some companies want you to attach the résumé, and other companies want you to put it in the body of the text," Ms. Cirillo says. "When you're sending an electronic résumé, you want to use as little underlining, bold, and italics as possible. In a hard copy, people can make use of underlining, bold, and italics to highlight things and to separate information."

Mary White-Cornell, a marketing consultant in Colorado Springs, Colo., who has been job-hunting for six months, recently started working with a career coach. "The first thing he suggested was to change my résumé and delete education dates, so an employer couldn't easily figure out my age," she says.

Workplace specialists emphasize the importance of using online resources in a job search. Applicants who once turned to help-wanted ads in newspapers now scan Internet job boards. Some specifically serve older workers. RetirementJobs.com, which provides job postings, career advice, and résumé services, offers online career workshops on topics such as "Planning your job search" and "Age-friendly employers." In a survey last week, Bob Skladany, the site's CEO, found that the expected retirement age has jumped from 62 in previous years to 68 today. A quarter of respondents don't expect to retire at all.

Although job listings are way down, Art Koff, CEO of RetiredBrains.com, is getting postings for temporary jobs and project assignments. He encourages older job seekers to register with local temp agencies. "They don't care about age but are more interested in your skills and experience," he says. "If you get work through a temp firm it helps build your résumé for future work assignments." Temporary employment can often lead to full-time work.

Mr. Koff also notes that the Census Bureau is hiring older workers to be census takers. Cirillo encourages job seekers to visit One-Stop Career Centers around the country. Federally funded, they offer free career coaching services.

Cathy Severson, an employment counselor in southern California, emphasizes the importance of flexibility. "A person who has spent 30 years in a Fortune 1000 company tends to want to focus a job search on large corporations," she says. "That's not where new jobs are. They need to look at smaller companies and for self-employment opportunities."

She cautions against providing too much information on a résumé. Applicants need to pare it down to the specific position they are applying for instead of supplying a smorgasbord of skills and knowledge.

At Experience4Hire.com, founder Renee Ward runs a section called "Jobs Wanted," where members can post listings. "I can tell they haven't had to look for a job for a long time," she says. "They're not contemporary with today's recruiting styles."

She tells of one man who wants a job in construction. His posting contained misspellings. "He didn't present himself properly," Ms. Ward says. "Even if companies have an opening, when they see this kind of presentation, they'll pass. Presentation starts from Day 1 with your résumé, dress, the way you speak, being on time, and how you answer questions."

Job hunters also need to know how to assess themselves and their skills. "Those in this age group may feel that just because they have experience, they're qualified for a job," Ward says. "Sometimes they carry a chip on their shoulder. Just because they're interviewing with someone half their age, they shouldn't be condescending. They need to realize that the labor market is no longer about seniority, it's about skills."

Whatever learning curve is involved as longtime employees update their skills, the results can be beneficial to everyone. "Employer groups tell us that once on the job, older workers are more reliable," Ward says.

As Clark attends her classes every day, she finds reassurance in being with others who are in the same situation. Noting that she hopes to find a position in healthcare, she says she expects to work another 15 years, until at least age 70. Echoing the sentiments of legions of other job-seekers, she adds, "Just to be gainfully employed again would be wonderful."

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