Older workers jump back into jobs with state, local assistance

Kelly Dunham has seen many older job seekers join the ranks of drivers at the Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA).

And she’s interested in adding more to a BATA workforce that has an average age of 54 and reaches as high as 77, with a variety of backgrounds.

“We see a little bit of everything, really,” said Dunham, BATA’s executive director. “We certainly have a population that comes to us that is looking for part time or more flexible hours to fill their retirement.”

Dunham said that people who have worked in other industries are now looking for ways to give back to the community.

“Many of our drivers experience a high level of personal reward in their role in helping those that are dependent on public transportation,” she said.

A desire to keep contributing, or occupy retirement time. Or, a fear that to stop working is to lose purpose, not possible or financially feasible. Those are among later-in-life causes of career change, say those who assist older job seekers.

At the Northwest Michigan Works! Traverse City service center, as in elsewhere in the region and around the state, officials are working through key dynamics: People retiring at a later age for a variety of reasons, and employers struggling to find qualified workers to fill – and stay – in job openings. The workforce agency tries to meet both needs.

Younger workers tend to stay in their jobs for shorter amounts of time than do older workers, said business services coordinator Rob Dickinson. Dependability is an attribute sought after by employers, as is knowing “that this person can do the job once they train, and can be left alone to do the job … and it all comes with experience. Once you’ve been in the workforce for a while, you know what’s expected,” he said.

With older job seekers, Northwest Michigan Works! provides guidance and assistance on how they can best represent themselves to employers. Dickinson said that can include creating a different resume and “tips and tricks on how to explain themselves in their cover letter” – thoroughly but succinctly stating value, like experience, while seeking to avoid being passed up as overqualified. Mock interviewing, and preparing for discussions about pay are additional practices.

Data compiled by American Association of Retired Persons, Inc. (AARP) from various sources shows the number of workers age 50-plus is continuing to rise and people expect to work longer, with fewer workers age 45 and older expecting to retire at or before age 65.

Connecting the 50-and-up population with appropriate and available jobs is the aim of a new AARP Michigan initiative that’s begun as a pilot downstate but planned for expansion in regions like Grand Traverse.

Experience for Hire, a partnership between AARP Michigan and the Michigan Economic Development Corp., Michigan Works! and local chambers of commerce aims to help employers tap into qualified workers by providing them a pool of applicants, screened by Michigan Works! or the employer, who are seeking jobs through the state’s mitalent.org website.

The initiative is being watched by Northwest Michigan Works!, Dickinson said. Earlier this year, one Northwest Michigan Works! office held an older job seeker-focused event of its own.

The week-long “career cruising” series of workshops for job seekers 50 and older, held in May by the Cadillac service center, touched on areas like job searching, resume writing, and assessing employment interests and career pathways.

It responded to a need the center saw in the community, said employment specialist Ken Gorlewski.
“We were seeing a number of older adults coming to the door … very apprehensive,” he said. “The whole job search/job application process changed significantly from when they entered the workforce years ago.”

Older workers had topics in common, which Gorlewski said were addressed.

“We hit some of the major things that we were hearing the older workers talk about, like what do I do now, what kind of jobs are out there, how is it going to impact my Social Security, how do I do an online job application, resume,” he said.

Tim Martin, president of Pinnacle Truck Driver Training Inc., participated on a panel to “spread the word” about truck driving as a career field.

Professional truck drivers are in demand, Martin said.

“It’s a rare week that we don’t have at least one recruiter stop in and make a pitch to the class,” he said.
He said the Cadillac-based truck driving school gets many students who are middle-aged, in their 50s, and “it’s not uncommon to have someone in their 60s here.” The school draws students from area counties, providing training and job placement assistance.

Martin said some older students seek a second career voluntarily, while others may have lost their jobs and are forced into a career change. Older workers can bring maturity, judgement and decision-making skills that are important to employers, he said. And driving jobs can offer the appeal of travel and “a chance to see America on someone else’s money,” as well as the opportunity just “to do something else.”

Martin said newly trained drivers generally fill “over-the-road” jobs that take them around the country and away from home for a couple weeks at a time, but after gaining experience they can be attractive candidates to smaller northern Michigan companies that might offer jobs with less away time.

At BATA, hires include both experienced drivers as well as people “we’re happy to train … that don’t have any commercial driving experience,” Dunham said.

“We train them from scratch to get their commercial driver’s license and prepare them for the road test that’s required, and then we train them on all the different BATA routes and put them to work,” she said.
Dunham added that many older drivers come to the job looking for a more enriching experience, giving back to the community or helping those in need.

“So they have a desire to provide great customer service,” she said.

Their life experiences help them handle challenges, they are flexible in work availability, are reliable, “and I would say they offer more stability and longevity in the organization,” she said.

Easier Re-Entry

While some local employers and workers find each other on their own, others are connecting through an AARP Foundation-provided avenue.

The Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) – a federally funded initiative operated in Michigan and other states by the foundation – helps low-income adults age 55 and over gain skills and entry into permanent jobs through temporary placement and employment at nonprofit and government organizations.

“You might be remaining in the workforce, you might be looking to re-enter the workforce,” said AARP Foundation Project Director Angela Murphy, who’s housed in Northwest Michigan Works! Traverse City center and covers an 18-county territory.

“We have a lot of folks who come to us who want to do a complete, almost 180 [degree] change from what they were doing before,” said Murphy.

Murphy said that most older workers rejoin the workforce for three reasons: to do something they enjoy and see as fulfilling; to get their foot in the door to high-demand, hiring employers; or to gain an in-demand skill set.

Potential participants are given program information and assessed in many areas including interests, skill levels, and ultimate goals.

“We talk with them about who may have what open, and who will offer them the try of training they are interested in,” she said.

The foundation will arrange a formal, face-to-face interview. If it’s a winning connection, “that’s where they start in a training assignment,” she said.

Participants are paid minimum wage for 20 hours a week and receive training at their community service job and at off-site locales, such as by tapping Northwest Michigan Works! resources and workshops and specialized training through community colleges or other providers.

Fifty-eight-year-old Patty Steele is among those who say SCSEP is a valuable pathway.

She entered the program after spending seven years in prison for a drunk driving accident that killed one person and severely injured another, and a SCSEP-arranged interview with Traverse City’s Addiction Treatment Services led to employment as a care coordinator working with the center’s clients.

Since joining the organization in 2015, she’s earned a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University and is accumulating hours of experience required toward becoming a state-certified alcohol and drug counselor, her target career.

Steele said the employment program opened up connections and doors “that I don’t believe would have opened otherwise, or that I would have known to go through otherwise.”

“It’s a field that for me certainly has a lot of purpose, because as much as I do give to it, I truly do get a whole lot back,” she said. “It’s a wonderful exchange.”

For 60-year-old Barbara Johnson, the SCSEP program has led to permanent employment at Goodwill Industries’ retail store in Ludington.

Out of the workforce for nearly 18 years, she said she took computer classes and gained other skills before getting her job greeting people, receiving donations and other handling other responsibilities.

“I love AARP, they really do help, and they give you the confidence that you need … to push forward,” Johnson said. “Eighteen years out of the workforce and I had no idea what my niche was. They go through with you … what do you really want to do.”

At host agency sites, SCSEP can provide needed temporary workers. For example, SCSEP participants have helped the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) office in Traverse City transition from paper files to electronic, a “pretty big process” that has included organizing, moving and scanning files, said Joe Bagby, MDHHS community resource coordinator for Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Kalkaska counties.

Their work has helped the office be more efficient, he said, and has provided job experience with value.
Being a host agency is “a win-win situation,” he said.

“Your agency can benefit from this extra labor,” he said, “and the people who are working with you can benefit from learning the skills, and being more employable.”

At the United Way of Northwest Michigan, there have been both tangible and intangible benefits.
Executive director Ranae McCauley said a SCSEP worker was “an important part of our team” at the host agency, handling computer and technology-related work and gaining skills in those areas while also serving as a receptionist that the small staff lacked.

And as the Traverse City-based organization implemented a new database to analyze and improve its interactions with those with whom it works, an approach called customer relationship management.
While training their new worker, the United Way staff learned a bit, too.

“Having this program specifically designed to teach older workers new skills, [there] is something to be said about value to our organization for existing staff,” McCauley said. “It really raised the bar and perhaps expedited the need to learn faster, because we had to teach someone else.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.