After Years Out of a Job, Older Workers Find a Way Back In

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After five years of being unemployed or underemployed, Rosanna Horton, 55, is back where she wants to be: working full time.

In July 2007, Ms. Horton left her job at the University of California, Irvine, and moved north to San Francisco to take care of her mother and finish her dissertation. She sold her condominium, intending to live off the proceeds. She figured she would have no problem going back to work in a better position.

A year and a half later, she had completed her dissertation and received her doctoral degree in education. But the job market was a disaster.

Even with her new doctorate in hand, she found nothing suitable, setting in motion an unexpected downward spiral. At times, Ms. Horton, said she was “sofa surfing,” or sleeping on a relative’s or friend’s couch.

“It put you in a position of thinking, ‘I should not have left my job,’” she said. “I am the kind of person who thinks things happen and you take responsibility and you move on.”

Ms. Horton barely scraped by, she said, making it through a long period without much income only with the help of a “very small circle” of family and friends. She worked in unpaid fellowships, temporary and contract positions before finally turning, in September 2013, to the San Francisco Jewish Vocational Service, an organization that helps people build skills and find jobs.

The recession was over, but it was still a challenge to find a decent job in a rapidly transforming economy. In what she calls her “aha!” moment, Ms. Horton decided to take her degrees off her résumé — all of them — so as not to be perceived as overqualified, and to get her “foot in the door.”

At the beginning of 2014, she was hired as manager of radiology and biomedical imaging at the University of California, San Francisco, where she has been working ever since. She is making more money now than she was when she left her job in 2007. “What better way to end your career than doing something you care about and can affect others in a positive way?” she said. Her goal now? “I’m working till I’m 70.”

Long-term unemployment “is a challenging and often hidden problem,” said Abby Snay, executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Vocational Service, which is part of a larger network, the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services.

In the economic downturn that began in late 2007 and persisted through the middle of 2009, millions of people in their 50s and 60s were laid off, bought out, downsized or otherwise left without a steady paycheck. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, in a report titled, “How Will Older Workers Who Lose Their Jobs During the Great Recession Fare in the Long Run?” found that the recession hit many more workers over 50 compared with previous downturns.

By 2012, many of these people were still out of work, said Matthew S. Rutledge, a labor economist at the Center for Retirement Research and a co-author of the paper. “It was really difficult for them to get back in,” he said. “It didn’t matter if they had retired or were laid off.”

The stock market decline and the collapse of the housing market also took a huge toll on the financial resources of older Americans. For those without jobs, that put even more pressure on them to return to the work force and impelled many to keep working well past their original target for retirement.

One result is that the work force is growing older. According to Andrew G. Biggs, an American Enterprise Institute resident scholar and a former top official at the Social Security Administration, there are 3.9 million more workers age 60 to 64 today than in 2005, the last full year before the beginning of the economic slowdown. By comparison, he noted in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, there are fewer Americans age 20 to 55 working today than in 2005.

For older Americans, paths to returning to full-time work vary. Some go into consulting, others seek specialized knowledge and new contacts by working as a volunteer. Still others resume their education through courses online or at a for-profit or community college, while some enroll in professional association courses. Many decide to start a business.

The biggest challenge for those seeking a new job after an extended period of unemployment is updating their skills for the current workplace.

“If you have been laid off or retired for a couple of years, skill sets may have moved on quite rapidly without you,” said Mark Schmit, executive director of the SHRM Foundation, a research affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management. “This puts you at a disadvantage to the people who are working, including peers who are the same age.”

Rich Feller is a professor of counseling and career development at Colorado State University, past president of the National Career Development Association and a thought leader with AARP Life Reimagined. Dr. Feller said a key credential for returning to the work force is the ability to “document your technology skills.” If you can, he said, employers will “overlook your age.”

He suggests community college or online courses as a way to master new skills.

The popular belief that younger workers are more productive than older workers is “largely a myth,” Mr. Schmit said. “The only evidence we have of that is in physical labor. It’s absolutely true that older people can learn and are motivated to learn just as younger people are.”

Rick Dottermusch, 58, began taking courses at Montgomery College, at first as a “diversion” until he found his next job. The new knowledge paid off. Five months ago, he began working in web development at a technology company in the Washington area, moving out of sales, his job for 30 years.

“The students — whether high school graduates or those with a master’s — are looking for current skills and they’re willing to spend their time taking courses if they are courses aligned with the market, with what employers need,” said Steve Greenfield, dean of work force development and continuing education at Montgomery College, a community college outside Washington. “We do labor market research before we even run a class.”

But just getting the training is not enough. “Networking is an important part” of a job search, Mr. Dottermusch said. “If you know someone who can provide an entree, anyone who can tell you more about the company, if nothing else pick their brain — what is the best way to approach that company?”

And those seeking a change in the type of work they do must be prepared to lower their expectations, at least initially. “If you have retrained for a new career and learned a new skill, expect to start at a lower level, lower pay grade,” Mr. Schmit said.

For Dave Gustafson, 61, moving from working as an employee for 30 years to working as a real estate broker on a commission-only basis has been taxing. “It takes a certain amount of courage,” he said.

He took a five-week class to prepare for the real estate broker’s exam in Colorado, passed it in late July and joined a regional real estate firm.

Even though he had worked in sales in the past, he found that he had to throw away the habits of a lifetime to learn the techniques the new company uses.

His advice for others starting on a new career path?

“Be pliable.”

Written by Harriet Edleson of The New York Times

(Source: The New York Times)

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