Finding work after 50

Conventional wisdom tells us that finding a new job after 25 to 30 years of job success would be a snap. After all, senior or mature workers tend to have more experience, having years to perfect their skills. Most have broadened their knowledge base and usually have reasonably good judgment.

So, wouldn't most companies jump at the chance to hire such valuable employees? Not necessarily!

The major hurdles the 50-plus generation has to overcome in today's job market are age bias, acute apprehension on the part of the hiring personnel, and financial justification. Typically, the first line of screening for employment is done by those just beginning a career in human resources, which usually means they are young. They tend to view the over 50 job-seekers as out-of-date, lacking in energy and having slowed down mentally. In addition, they may feel that the applicant is over-qualified for the available position or their philosophy is too different.

Money seems to be an inherent problem for employers and job seekers alike. The realism is that budgets often do not allow adequate funding to pay top dollar for competent, skilled individuals. However, older applicants, especially those who are in their second or third career, are often willing to negotiate a lower salary.

Not only are those in their 50s, 60s and beyond not always ready to settle into a traditional retirement lifestyle, but they may also desire new challenges, the need to stay involved, the mental calisthenics of work, social connections or extra income found only through further employment. Many workers close to the traditional retirement age find they are also faced with costs like health care, college tuitions, weddings, and mortgages later in life than were their parents' generation. Now, the income from further employment may be indispensable.

However, we can't overlook that 50 isn't as old as it used to be. The average American today is living 29 years longer than the average American did at the turn of last century. Since people today are in better health, those 29 years are being tacked on to middle age, not old age.

Whether you've been forced into early retirement, a victim of downsizing or a merger or are just tired of being at home, entering the work force after the age of 50 can still hold some challenges.

When applying for a position, focus on the skills you have, not your deficits. Chances are you've accumulated a great range of skill and knowledge over the years, particularly people skills. Don't be intimidated if you haven't had the chance to get computer-proficient. Sign up for courses at the local community college, government agencies or a computer store. Continuous lifetime learning is one of the keys to resilience. If you've gotten lax about learning, take this opportunity to change that.

Some businesses are finally realizing that instead of brooming skilled, older workers out the door, they need to find ways to make it attractive for them to stay and contribute.

"When someone retires, you lose the experience and knowledge gained over 30 years in the same field," says Tamara Erickson, co-author of "It's Time to Retire Retirement," a March 2004 Harvard Business Review article that was based on a year-long study of the aging American workforce, conducted by the Concours Consulting Group of Kingwood, Texas. "Many companies are going to face a talent shortage unless they redefine their concept of retirement and adopt a new strategy."

Resources that can help

Although mature workers make good employees, when you're 50 and over, it often feels harder to find a company that understands how valuable you are.

Bill Snyder had 35 years of drafting experience when he moved back to Traverse City. He could not find a job in his field because he lacked Auto CAD skills. His age was a problem and companies he interviewed with had salary issues with his experience. He is now employed by Manpower Inc. (a world-wide staffing company) and hired by the City of Traverse City as a temporary seasonal worker, doing civil and electrical engineering.

Besides Manpower, there are several resources in the local area to help you overcome drawbacks. Among them, Michigan Works and the Area Agency on Aging, both with training programs for the purpose of upgrading a worker's skills, i.e., computer skills.

One solution to the dilemma has been offered by AARP. It is collaborating with several companies that appreciate the talent mature workers bring to a job. Called Featured Employers, AARP's goal is to connect mature workers with job opportunities. They will connect those who may want full- to part-time jobs or even new careers with companies who value their experience. They will also act as a resource to large and small companies to help them understand the needs and interests of a mature workforce.

Some of the companies that have entered into a Featured Employer agreement with AARP include Home Depot, Manpower Inc., Borders Books, and Walgreen's.

Home Depot was AARP's first national hiring partner.

"This hiring partnership with AARP is a great opportunity for Home Depot to attract qualified, knowledgeable and skilled individuals to work as associates in our stores," said Home Depot president and CEO, Bob Nardelli. "At Home Depot, we believe knowledge, experience, and passion never retire."

Art Wasek has been the Traverse City Home Depot store manager since April.

"It's an easy philosophy for me, personally, because I happen to be in that age group. I happen to believe in order to get the best workers for our environment, they're often going to be the older, mature worker."

According to Wasek, Home Depot doesn't want to know the age of the applicant, instead they're looking for qualifications, particularly technical skills and customer service abilities.

The technical expertise, which comes with years in electrical, plumbing and heating, flooring, construction trades, etc. is important because Home Depot's customers are not only looking for a product, they're looking for expertise on how to apply that product.

For Pat Fraley, an employee at Home Depot, his age is "far from a problem" in finding a job. During his career, Fraley was sales manager and VP of significant Fortune 500 companies, including Scott Paper, Kitchens of Sara Lee, Ore-ida, General Mills, O-cel-o (a division of General Mills) and 3M. He ended up retiring from General Mills and 3M at age 59. He needed to keep busy, though, so he looked for something when he moved to northern Michigan from Ledgewood, NJ.

Fraley, who grew up in the Detroit area, didn't have a difficult time finding a job. He has worked at Chateau Grand Traverse in the tasting room and at Wine Country Market. He became a part-time employee of Home Depot when the store opened eight years ago, starting at the Special Services Desk.

"I like to work with people," he said.

Jennifer Hull at Alcotec, a world-wide producer of aluminum welding wire in Traverse City, likes to find sales employees that have experience and are problem solvers. She feels an experienced employee has come across many different work issues in their lifetime and can handle problems with more confidence. According to Hull, in production, age doesn't matter.

The same goes for Borders.

"If they have a passion for books, music and coffee, it really doesn't matter what age they are," said Borders Manager Kathy Dittenbir. "Older people really have a good work ethic, excellent with customer service and generally very knowledgeable. We love older people!"

Each person over 50 has a different set of skills, experiences and wishes for their retirement years. For Pat Burr, a Borders employee, it's about quality of life.

"If I wanted to make a lot of money, I would just go back into engineering, I worked in engineering and design for 30 years," she said. "I wanted a change and to live where it was beautiful." BN