Left Behind

Lost in the economic recovery

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Continued: Over 50, working against time in America's harsh job market

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 4, 2014 - 9:25 AM

“I’m moving about the way the economy is moving for a lot of folks — slow,” he said.

Obstacles to getting hired

The problems of older workers are a mix of things they can control and things they can’t. Sixty-four percent say they’ve either seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace, but they’re also up against a weak, changing job market and the well-established bias against hiring the long-term unemployed.

“There’s this perception that if you’ve been out of work for seven months, there must be something wrong with you,” said Rix, the AARP Public Policy Institute strategist. “It is also legal to discriminate against people who are unemployed — and by that I mean you don’t have to hire them — and that’s a really tough one.”

Older workers often don’t have a young person’s freedom to move for a job, Rix said, so they spend more time unemployed before giving up.

“So many more workers are reaching retirement age without adequate resources for retirement that they’re looking for work longer than they did in previous recessions,” Rix said. “Ultimately, many of them give up.”

Penny Skluzacek worked more than seven-and-a-half years at a small medical device firm in Eden Prairie. She handled accounts receivable and collections and analyzed the creditworthiness of retailers who bought from the firm. The company’s ownership changed a few times before early 2013, and then management announced at an afternoon meeting that the office would relocate to Lake Forest, Ill., and everybody would lose their job.

Skluzacek, 54, stayed on until May, and since then she has applied for more than 40 jobs. Unlike many of her younger colleagues, she is still looking.

“All the people who were between 25 and 40, they got jobs very quickly,” Skluzacek said. “All the people 45 and over, it took them longer, and some of us are still looking.”

Skluzacek, who says she is not a flashy person, says she has learned to be wary of young women in human resources departments, saying she usually doesn’t hit it off with them.

One time she applied for a job, got called in and had such a good interview with the hiring manager — with whom she was close in age — that he asked when she would be available to start. Then a woman from human resources was summoned to the room. Skluzacek described her as attractive, blonde, in her late 20s or early 30s. The woman sat across from Skluzacek, laid a folder on the table and instructed her to “tell me about yourself.”

“When she walked in, I just got the impression that it was going to be a short interview versus a long interview,” Skluzacek said. “I felt like I was kind of looked at, and well, you don’t meet our criteria.”

Skluzacek didn’t get the job.

Strategies for the search

Job seekers over 50 can do plenty to improve their chances, said Kerry Hannon, author of “Great Jobs for Everyone 50+.” Much of her advice boils down to humbling oneself and becoming more flexible.

Older workers should take LinkedIn seriously, posting a smiling photo and a clean résumé to the networking site. They should get physically fit, pointedly ask friends and family members for job leads, and volunteer or join professional associations, Hannon said. Getting into the workforce, even for a less-than-ideal job, is often worth the pay cut.

Baby boomers too often believe that when employers look at their lengthy résumés, they will automatically see how special they are, she said.

“It was a generation where things came very easily for most people,” said Hannon, who is in her 50s. “If you achieved a certain level of education, got into a certain career path, we were still in the group where you did work for someone for 20-odd years.”

Older workers must put that mind-set behind them and start to think about jobs the way younger workers do — not as permanent positions but as something more fluid.

“It’s OK to just take a job for a couple years,” she said. “You might have several jobs between 58 and 70.”

And Hannon said employers’ concerns about older workers are often justified.

Employers assume older workers won’t have the stamina for a job, don’t understand technology or don’t have the right attitude to work with younger employees — or that they won’t stick around for long.

“An older worker really has to tackle each of those concerns head on if they expect to be able to find a job in this marketplace,” Hannon said.

At last, back to work

Duffy admits he has been shaken by his transition from family provider to discouraged job seeker, and he has become more conscious of his age.

When his manager at Starbucks asked for his date of birth for a background check when he was hired, he grimaced.

“Oh, that’s it,” he told her.

“Why?” the manager said.

“Well, no one’s hiring me,” he said.

“Oh, because of age discrimination,” she said.

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