Tom Corcoran was a successful salesman for Williams-Sonoma until the retailer shut its Mall of America store in January and laid off the staff.
Since then, the energetic 59-year-old salesman and commercial photographer has submitted dozens of résumés, gotten certified in web design and data analytics and won a few consulting gigs to show employers his newly expanded skill set. In other words, he has done everything job consultants say you should do to land a job.
Even so, he hasn't had a bite.
"I am doing everything I can to get hired full time," said Corcoran, who also has worked for Maple Grove Hospital, PACER Center and Pixel Farm Interactive. "I'm staying totally optimistic, but I think there may be issues with age."
Even with the lowest unemployment in years, many older workers who lose their jobs are still struggling to line up new ones. The number of unemployed Americans 55 and over increased in September for the fifth straight month, nearing 1.2 million, the government reported recently.
Economists say the trend could have long-term effects because many of these unemployed workers should be in their prime salary years. As long as they are out of work, they are not building up retirement savings they are likely to need in a few years to supplement Social Security.
Jeremy Hanson Willis, Minnesota's deputy commissioner of workforce development, said the problem of older worker unemployment is puzzling at a time when employers in almost every industry — including hospitals, factories, trucking and construction firms — are loudly griping about low unemployment and how difficult it is to find workers.
The U.S. unemployment rate overall is now down to 4.2 percent, the lowest rate since January 2001. In Minnesota, the unemployment rate is 3.7 percent, meaning there's now more than one job opening for every unemployed person in the state.
"Part of the reason we think that employers are having difficulty in filling jobs is because of implicit bias," Hanson Willis said. "One of those biases is older workers.
"Given the economic moment we are in, it means there are a lot of job opportunities available. But people of color, people with disabilities and people who are older are all groups that have higher unemployment and higher barriers to employment," he said. "It will take businesses some effort to think how they can change their practices and policies so they can attract and retain these folks."
There's no need to tell that to Marie Brown, 65.
When the subsidized housing manager was laid off from her job in St. Paul in 2014, her job search led to odd questions from 26- and 30-year-old interviewers, she said.
Some asked how she'd ever cope if she suddenly had a boss who was younger? Others told her she was overqualified. Still others hinted they didn't expect her to stay in a job because she was old enough to retire.
"It was horrible trying to find a job. Your self-esteem gets shattered. After a while I learned to dummy down my résumé. I took off my degree and my management jobs," Brown said. "I had no proof. But I felt that the [recruiters only] saw all this experience I had, and that I was applying for a less salaried position. They questioned that."
At one point, the only resources that kept her afloat were food shelves, Goodwill and weekend reception jobs. "Many of us are in this really fragile state. And it's just not OK," said Brown, who reluctantly signed up for Social Security at 62 so she wouldn't lose her condo.
Last month, she landed a part-time job working for the federal government. She now finds jobs for other seniors. "It has given me something so I don't feel so tight. I used to feel like every time I breathed, it was tight."
Many older workers "want and need to work," said Paul Sears, trainer and senior employment counselor at the Minnesota WorkForce Center in Minneapolis.
Many lost financial ground during the Great Recession, and they need a paycheck for several years to come, Sears said recently while teaching an "Over 40 Job Search" class. They aren't old enough for Social Security or Medicare. Plus, those between 62 and 65 have found that other safety net programs have largely vanished.
Attorney Julie Wingert, who lost her job when she was 55 in 2014, thought her experience was a plus.
"Many employers said they were only looking for people who had three to five years of experience. Well I had 20," Wingert said. "It seemed like restricting the experience level was one way to keep the salary down and the age of applicants down."
Some actually told her she wouldn't be "happy" with the salary.
For three years, she took legal temp jobs so she wouldn't have a job gap on her résumé and could build contacts. With the help of a "champion" job coach from Hired, an employee assistance firm, she finally got a job.
She feels lucky, because that position was her dream job working as in-house counsel for a company with a diverse workforce.
Elizabeth O'Neal and Toby Haberkorn, in their book "Best Job Search Tips for Age 60-plus," point to her approach as the right one: taking consulting, freelance or part-time gigs and lower-skilled positions with the attitude that it could lead to something better.
"When you need money, you need money," O'Neal said in an interview. "You can't live on cat food forever."
Even after the Great Recession and years of significant corporate downsizings, O'Neal, a senior career management consultant for Edina-based Right Management, said many older workers are still caught by surprise by their layoffs.
"Some started as babies and worked for this company their whole life," she said. "When they leave, their ego takes a hit. So we often have to help people get some confidence back."
For people over 50, finding a job that pays well is "definitely a challenge," said Jim Tabaczynski, co-founder of Nifty50s.com, a website and education group that helps experienced job-seekers land their next gig. "Age discrimination is there and it's the forgotten stepchild."
He also said older workers can become "overwhelmed" by job searches because they discover that in this digital age, they must master LinkedIn, other social media networks, digital job boards and online applications. But sadly, for many clients, such technology tools are "like a whole new world to them. They have no idea."
Steve Lenius, 62, knows that feeling. "I am finding that the job market has shifted and I didn't. For a lot of job postings, you need to be literate in web and social media and I am not," said the graphic designer from Golden Valley.
He's had no job offers in six months. His unemployment ends this month. He's optimistic, though. He recently learned how to match his skills with modern job descriptions and exactly where he needs retraining help.
It turns out that "a web designer uses 70 percent of the same skills that I use as a graphic designer," he said. "I was amazed when I saw that. It gave me hope."
Plus, he met with Paul Sears at the WorkForce Center and learned he is a prime candidate for state retraining assistance. That's good news since Lenius believes he needs to work long past age 65.
"I have longevity in my genes, so my [money] has to last for a good number of years. My grandmother lived to 103 and my grandfather on my mother's side lived to 99," he said. "So I am going to be here awhile, and I don't want to spend my last 20 years penniless."
Job Search Strategies from Recruiters and Job Coaches
Make sure resume is a PDF: HR managers scan, check for desired buzzwords
Only Use neutral e-mail accounts (like Gmail) - not aol.com, which could signal your age.
Post resume on: Indeed, LinkedIn, & Resume Rabbit (which for $60 posts resume on 175 jobsites like CareerBuilder, Monster.com etc. )
LinkedIn Photos: only headshots. No prom, family, animal or boating pictures.
List only 10-12 years of employment: Omit earlier jobs or use headers such as: "Other Relevant Experience." Omit education and military service dates.
Emphasize skills: not dates
Vet your online profile Before interview: Google yourself. Delete old and embarrassing email addresses and Facebook posts
Have Answer For: 'Where do you expect to see yourself five years from now?" Wrong Answer: retirement
Answer questions: using the succinct STAR model: Situation. Task. Action. Result. model. Recruiters like this.
Thoroughly research prospective employer: Know history, revenue, growth, directional changes, leadership, stock, and other info about company.
SELF IMPROIVEMENT TIPS:
Update Skills: Stay current in your field. Take classes. Retrain. Read industry websites and trade journals. Become active in associations.
Inventory all your abilities: then explore occupations that could use your skills.
Master New Technology: ignoring this can lead to longer job search
Network: But first identify your line of work and how your skills can help an employer. Human contact beats online-only job hunts.
Use Multiple Job search techniques: trade association, workforce centers, outplacement centers, volunteering, retraining, etc.
Consider self employment: freelance, consulting work pay bills
Become more physically fit: Job candidates do well to showcase vitality
SOURCE: Society of Human Resource Management; Minnesota Workforce Center
FREE JOB SEARCH TOOLS AND RESOURCES
1. Minnesota Dislocated Worker's Program - for possible job counseling, retraining.
2. Minnesota's 46 Workforce Centers - offers skills testing, job lists, computer training, classes on job searching, resumes, interviewing, etc.
3. MinnesotaWorks.net - website posts 93,000 job openings around the state
4. AARP website - lists companies that pledged to give experienced job seekers a "level playing field" (ie:General Mills, United Health Group, 2nd Swing, Jeane Thorne and distributor Automation). https://www.aarp.org/work/job-search/employer-pledge-companies/
SOURCE: Minnesota DEED and AARP