Older workers and the road to (un)retirement

Despite layoffs and lost savings, some in the senior workforce find their jobs prospects are not all that gloomy.

Until last year, everyone in Georgette Pascale's communications firm in Pittsburgh was under the age of 38. Then she interviewed Deb Holliday, who is in her mid-50s, and hired her.

"Her experience has been invaluable to everyone," says Ms. Pascale, the company president. "It's nice to get the other end of the age spectrum."

Score one for hiring and keeping employees over 50 – a pressing need as the ranks of older Americans grow.

The recession is squeezing the senior workforce on two sides. It has shriveled savings, forcing many older workers with jobs to postpone retirement. The contraction has also cut job openings, making it tougher for retirees wanting to reenter the workforce to do so. A nagging question hangs over them all: Are they being discriminated against because of their age? Age-discrimination complaints jumped 29 percent to a record level in the most recent fiscal year, the federal government reports.

But the outlook isn't all gloomy. Just as companies have long been recognized as great workplaces, some firms are working to become standouts for their treatment of mature workers – organizations including Sprint, Cornell University, and Jos. A. Bank.

"Employers are increasingly seeing the value of retaining and hiring older workers for the depth of experience they bring," says Patrick Rafter of RetirementJobs.com, a career website for those over 50. That includes skills learned in their careers, higher loyalty, and lower turnover than younger workers. "We see this as a very favorable development, ultimately a sea change shift in the market," he says.

After Pascale hired Ms. Holliday as a project specialist, young staff members initially felt "some concern" about the age difference. So did Holliday. "This is the youngest climate I've worked in," she says. "Some of my colleagues are just out of college."

In her first days on the job, Holliday felt overwhelmed. "I wondered, 'Is this because of my age?' " she says. "But as soon as I caught on, age did not come into it again. Most negative thoughts about age were in my head, not my employer's."

Now, she adds, "I think my colleagues don't mind being around me, and I certainly enjoy being around them. I gain a lot from them, and hopefully my life experience helps them, too."

Similarly, Olga Gourianov, an innkeeper in Maine's mid-coast region, recently hired a woman in her mid-60s to work at the front desk. "We had tons of applicants," Ms. Gourianov says. "I chose her because of her previous experience. She told me, 'I will always be on time, and there will never be any drama with me.' That indicated a sincere work ethic. She's motivated and reliable. That's definitely a selling point."

Older job applicants, Gourianov adds, "should always use experience and maturity to their advantage."

They'll have to because, in this economy, more of them will be looking to work past retirement age or come back from retirement. A recent survey by CareerBuilder, an online career site, found that 60 percent of workers over the age of 60 were postponing retirement as the economic downturn eroded their savings.

"This recession has created a compelling need for baby boomers to work longer," says David DeLong, a researcher who specializes in the changing workforce. "We will have a much larger pool of older job seekers coming out of this recession."

Finding work won't be easy, necessarily.

Employers willing to hire those over 50 "seem to be hiding," says Gene Burnard, publisher of Workforce50.com. "We keep trying to ferret them out."

Many hiring managers keep a low profile, Mr. DeLong notes, because they "are scared of publicizing openings and afraid they'll be flooded with résumés." But, he adds, "Organizations have learned from previous recessions the high cost of losing older workers. Some are doing what they can to retain them."

Job boards that specifically match older applicants with employers offer one way to tap that experience. "Employers look at us as a venue to get to these employees," says Joe Scalice, president of retiredworkforce.com. "Some employers are more open to it. Others you have to persuade a bit."

Openings include part-time, full-time, and seasonal positions, says Mr. Scalice. He estimates that 40 percent of his listings are administrative and clerical. Among the companies open to hiring mature workers are Sprint, IBM, and Office Team (a staffing company).

Three sectors of the economy actively retain older workers, says Mr. Rafter of RetirementJobs.com: healthcare, including nurses and medical technicians; science and information technology, encompassing clean-room manufacturing, biotechnicians, and software engineers; and defense contractors and subcontractors. Among employers that are exemplary in hiring older workers, he lists Jos. A. Bank, T-Mobile, Fresh Market, Merck, Atria senior-living facilities, Home Instead Senior Care, Travelers insurance, and federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Transportation Security Administration, the Social Security Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service.

Some companies actively recruit older workers.

HoneyBaked Ham, for example, markets to older workers who want to become franchisees or who are looking for part-time positions. More than one-third of its franchisees are retirement age. CVS has been recruiting mature workers for its pharmacies since the early 1990s. Those age 50 and over now make up 18 percent of its staff.

"The challenge is looking where everyone else isn't looking," DeLong says. "Although small companies still create the majority of new jobs, some large firms that have announced big layoffs are still hiring. Don't assume there are no jobs there."

In government ranks, for example, roughly half of America's 1.6 million federal workers will be eligible to retire in 2010, DeLong notes.

In another encouraging sign, a record 202 employers have applied this year for the AARP Best Employers for Workers Over 50 award. The program recognizes innovative organizations that offer policies and practices that appeal to workers 50-plus. Those include flexible work options, training opportunities, competitive health and retirement benefits, and age-neutral performance systems. Winners will be announced in September. Cornell University finished first last year.

"There may be many more good-guy companies," says Jan Cannon, a career adviser in the Boston area. "At the same time, many employers are willing to keep older employees but are not necessarily willing to hire them."

She hears frequent complaints from older applicants who say they get called for interviews but don't get called back. She offers a suggestion: "If people have been laid off, they may have a lot of anger. I encourage them not to go on interviews right away."

Older job seekers face other challenges as well.

"A typical human resources person who does the first screening of applicants tends to be a 25- to 30-year-old female," Mr. Burnard says. "Most of them would have discomfort in interviewing someone old enough to be their father."

Job seekers have responsibilities too, of course. "Older workers make the mistake of thinking their long experience entitles them to a job," DeLong says. "Some don't have up-to-date technical skills, or they expect to be paid more than the market is willing to pay."

Burnard also sees a need to "enlighten" businesses about the advantages of "senior-friendly" hiring: "We don't expect employers to staff exclusively with older workers, but let's not overlook them. There's tremendous value there. And they are good mentors for younger staff."

Companies can benefit from having a range of employees, Pascale says, "Sometimes you can get very stagnant in your hiring. That doesn't bode well for anyone. You tend to lack creativity after that. It's nice to get fresh ideas no matter what age your employees are." •

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