Friday, February 20, 2009

Economy is toughest for (best) older workers
by Nadirah Z. Sabir
Georgia Online News Service

Editor's note: This in-depth look at older workers includes four information boxes at the end of the story.

When Rick Viguette left his job as a Georgia state Supreme Court public information officer, he assumed, with his credentials, it would take maybe three months to land his next gig--six months tops. "I'd been working for the court for over 20 years in different capacities, making in the low $70,000s." It's been over a year. In those 15 months, Viguette, 54, says he has applied for about 100 jobs, "maybe more. A lot of the jobs aren't really vacancies or they're scared off by my age."

Baby boomers are showing the bruises from a volatile job market in a youth-obsessed culture. Yet, from all indicators companies will desperately need older workers to fill skilled labor gaps in the coming decade. Many studies are pointing to a confluence of elements to account for this conundrum. Baby boomers make up a huge percentage of the population and comprise some of the most skilled and most educated workers America has ever produced. Though headlines tout golden parachutes and buyout packages, many boomers are staying on the job longer (because of financial need and for others an unyielding drive to continue working). But, more and more, older workers increasingly are finding themselves shadow boxing insistent stereotypes, disproportionately affected by layoffs, and less likely to be re-hired as they age.

Llewelyn Barton, 60, was laid off in 1999 with about 3,000 other workers. Her computer help desk position at a major record company in New York was outsourced to south Asia around the same time her company merged with another. Still, she brought in the new millennium on a high note. "At the beginning of that year when I was 53, I had money in the bank, a retirement account, good credit and was optimistic about my future."

By the early fall of 2001, she had two jobs offers but a couple of weeks later they disintegrated in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. "It's never been like this, I've never had a problem finding a job. I know Word, Excel and PowerPoint backwards and forwards," said the Spelman College alumnae.

Even as she increased her skill set, the economy continued to grind. The latest numbers show the unemployment rate soared to 7.6 percent in January from 4.9 percent this time last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The economy shed another half million jobs across a variety of sectors including business, professional and service putting the number of jobless Americans at 11.6 million last month.

"I think a lot of jobs disappeared in this century," said Barton. "As a temp you go to a lot of different places and you see half the floors are empty." Experts note discrimination of all types tends to rise as the economy falters, so no one is surprised that older workers are taking a hit. But the sheer number of skilled, experienced labor in this age group will likely be its deliverance.

Workforce development consultant Barbara Hoenig warns in her 2005 report, The Mature Workforce Matters: "Retaining older workers in the workforce has become a matter of economic necessity for both workers and employers." Should millions of eligible baby boomers retire in the next few years, she predicts "a gap of 10 million workers in the labor force," an unprecedented drain on the skills and knowledge base of seasoned employees and leadership some corporations seemingly take for granted.

And really, the numbers could add up nicely because retirement isn't on the agenda of many mature workers age 65 and over. By 2012, the annual growth rate for age-65-and over workers is projected to reach over five times the annual growth rate of the labor force as a whole. They want to work and America needs their skills. So, notwithstanding the economy, what's the disconnect? Insistent stereotypes, says Donald Davis, vice president of the workforce development division at the National Council on Aging.

"Historically it bears down to a youth-oriented society, and that affects older workers entering or remaining in the workforce," he said. "But with the birth rates falling we will see a substantial change in attitudes or employers will not be able to fill jobs."

Findings from a 2003 survey of human resource executives by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) were positive. The top advantages of older workers included: more flexible schedules, willingness to mentor, invaluable experience, stronger work ethic, more reliable, add diversity of thought and more loyal to the company. Older workers are also seen as taking their work more seriously and have established networks.

Disadvantages were far fewer but included a lack of technical skills, an increase in expenses, and less flexibility in some circumstances. Moreover, some barriers, said Davis, are self induced. "Many mid-aged workers tend to become complacent, don't continue their education or seek avenues to enrich their job skills levels." He recommended workers freshen their looks and revitalize their willingness to engage new ideas and new people. "When you convey fragile, dysfunctional, non-flexible, it fits all the stereotypes. Attitude, dress, the overall posture should project a youthful image." Not childish or vampish, but youthful.

Despite the favorable attitude toward older workers in the study, firms are at best just beginning to become aware of and examine the effects of their hiring and firing policies. EEOC charge filings are up 20 percent from a few years ago, said Tom Osborne, senior attorney at AARP. "There's still an undercurrent of stereotyping. We'll probably see a rise in claims as the economy sinks and things get worse."

But boomers may have an ally on Capitol Hill. President Obama "has fought for the rights of seniors and will not stand for age discrimination," said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro while on the election trail last fall. "He has consistently voted for laws to prevent it, including the Civil Rights Act of 2008 which was an important step in our continuing battle against age discrimination."

A string of Supreme Court decisions have helped older workers. The latest, Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, No. 06-1505, came this past June when the High Court handed down a landmark decision. Twenty-eight workers in a federal naval laboratory in upstate New York sued after losing their jobs. Of the 31 people laid off, 30 were over the age of 40. The employer claimed that the high percentage of older workers selected was because of factors other than age. The court ruled 7-1 that the employer has to prove that those reasonable nonage-related factors existed. The burden of proof was shifted to the employer. "But we're still waiting to find what factors are reasonable," said Osborne, the lead attorney who argued the case on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Most employers rarely have such a blatant example, a statistical analysis that shows a disparity impacting older workers, to use in exercising their civil rights. "I'm told I'd be bored. Or I'm over qualified." said Barton. She fumes at want ads filled with notices requiring "one-to-three year's experience" and "just out of college." One job asked for her SAT scores. Others want social security numbers. Some do credit checks. "Now that we have all this technology, I think they do these things because they can, not because they're necessary. "

Today Barton survives working a string of temporary assignments "getting paid what I made in 1989 while paying twice as much rent."

Viguette is often frustrated by his growing suspicion that too often employers already have in mind who they want to hire but are obligated to post the job. So while he's sincerely looking for work, some interviewers are just going through the motions.

"It's tough," said Viguette, who teaches English at two colleges in the Atlanta area. He cleared about $20,000 in 2007 and hopes to hit about $35,000 this year. Even with careful financial planning, a more than half a year's pay drop takes a toll. "We have two kids. Our son is in college and our daughter is in high school. Some of the things we'd planned to do for their education is out the window."

BOX 1:

7 ways the National Council on Aging's Donald Davis said mature workers can develop a strategy to confront age bias

1. Ability is ageless. The individual should always focus on his/her ability to do the job.

2. As an employer, help applicants be prepared to focus on their abilities and experience and not age.

3. For those in positions of advocacy, distribute information so society is aware of value of older persons in the workplace.

4. Don't allow yourself to feel pressured to apologize or to become defensive about your age. See it as a plus.

4. Encourage workers and employers to align themselves with organizations that serve as advocates for older workers.

6. Make sure older workers understand their rights to equal employment opportunity and know what action to take if they perceive age discrimination.

7. Encourage older workers to convey a youthful image.


Consider working for an "older worker friendly" employer. The AARP has compiled a list of the 15 Best Companies for Older Workers.

Best Companies for Workers Over 50

Baptist Health South Florida

Coral Gables, FL (Health Care)

8,571 employees; 22% over 50 (35% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Age-friendly culture, flexibility.

ABN AMRO North America, Inc.

Chicago, IL (Banking)

17,685 employees; 18% over 50 (19% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Phased retirement, diversity program.

Adecco Employment Services

Melville, NY (Career Counseling and Placement)

3,347 employees; 13% over 50 (14% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Temporary jobs as a bridge to retirement, retiree health insurance.

The Aerospace Corporation

El Segundo, CA (Aerospace Research and Development)

4,289 employees; 49% over 50 (52% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Phased retirement, medical benefits for retirees.


Alexandria, VA (Consulting)

356 employees; 28% over 50 (56% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Benefits for 20 hours per week, percentage of premium paid by company for family health insurance increases with years of employment.

DaVita, Inc.

Torrance, CA (Dialysis Services Provider)

12,493 employees; 15% over 50 (26% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Flexible work options, tuition reimbursement.

*The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc.

Hartford, CT (Investment and Insurance)

29,630 employees; 24% over 50 (25% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Mentoring program, choice of eight flexible work arrangements including phased retirement.

Howard University

Washington, DC (Higher Education)

6,053 employees; 43% over 50 (52% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Mandatory age-related training for managers, pre-retirement planning.

Mitretek Systems, Inc.

Falls Church, VA (Systems Engineering)

640 employees; 41% over 50 (53% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Immediate 100 percent vesting on all company matches, career counseling.

*New York Life Insurance Company

New York, NY (Insurance)

7,337 employees; 26% over 50 (26% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Consultants advise employees coping with family responsibilities, child-care center open to grandchildren.

Principal Financial Group

Des Moines, IA (Insurance and Financial Services)

14,689 employees; 14% over 50 (16% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Education benefits, ergonomic workspaces, on-site eldercare classes.

Prudential Financial

Newark, NJ (Financial Services)

30,440 employees; 21% over 50 (18% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Retiree prescription drug coverage, flexible benefits package.


San Diego, CA (Telecommunications)

5,936 employees; 10% over 50 (12% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Phased retirement with 10 years service, extra vacation available (for special cases) from donated paid "vacation bank."

The Stanley Group

Muscatine, IA (Engineering and Construction Consultants)

650 employees; 25% over 50 (45% of managers/executives)

Wow Factor: Accrued sick time for dependent care, highly flexible work arrangements to allow for education and extra time off.

Ultratech Stepper

San Jose, CA (Semiconductor Equipment)

322 employees; 20% over 50 (30% of managers/ executives)

Wow Factor: Age-friendly culture, phased retirement, home-computer purchase program.



The first step toward avoiding age discrimination in the workplace is to understand exactly what it is, and identify potential problems within your organization or company. You can take action now to reduce or eliminate such discrimination. Some effective strategies include an appraisal of your organization's culture, preventive training, revision of hiring and screening processes, carefully crafted benefits and retirement policies, and a renewed commitment to provide a supportive work environment for adults of all ages. This requires a well-thought-out plan and the commitment of management.

Effective training sessions can raise employee awareness of discriminatory practices. Encourage (or require) participation in these sessions for employees at every level of the organization. The focus of the training should go beyond mere information to include real changes in behavior.


Points to remember in hiring older workers:

1. A candidate who has only five years left until retirement may be with your organization longer than the average new hire.

2. Salary requirements should not be assumed on the basis of age.

3. Take "date of birth" off your job application forms. Concentrate on skills and ability instead. Use a mixed-age interview panel in the selection process whenever possible. Make sure interviewers ask job-related questions, and do not base hiring decisions on prejudice or stereotypes.

4. Come up with a structure for evaluating job candidates, and apply the same criteria to all applicants.

5. Be sure that everyone who interviews candidates is familiar with age discrimination laws.

6. Place job advertisements where they will reach workers of all ages.

Once your team is in place:

1. Pair older and younger workers together on projects so they can learn from each other.

2. Provide adequate training for all jobs.

3. Clearly communicate your organization's age discrimination policy by posting it on bulletin boards or on the company intranet. The policy should include harassment definitions, remedies, consequences, reporting procedures, grievance processes, and anti-retaliation language.

4. Communicate the fact that you value professional development for all employees by including it in performance evaluations.

5. Encourage reluctant workers to develop, using employees who have benefited from training as role models. Investing in training and developing older workers can be as worthwhile as investing in younger workers, as turnover for older workers is generally lower.

6. Focus on skills, abilities, and potential. Avoid age cutoffs for promotions or training.

7. Encourage mentoring in your department. Workers of any age can pass on their experience, and help others develop through the use of their knowledge, skills, and expertise.

8. Set a good example, and make it clear to everyone that discrimination of any kind is not tolerated by your company.

Nadirah Z. Sabir is a former staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.   [full bio]

Editor's note: Hello, Georgia.

Our top story from around the state concerns the future of nuclear power expansion. A Georgia House subcommittee this afternoon gave its overwhelming approval to move ahead and a final full House vote could come as early as Tuesday. We have a full report for you today with comments from representatives from around the state.

We've also included two other stories for your weekend editions the value that older workers bring to the workplace and a commentary on the ongoing debate about the value of school vouchers.

All three are solid, thought-provoking reads.

As always, we'd like to hear from you. GONSO is an enterprise founded and staffed by more than two dozen leading journalists and media executives in Georgia. We're providing content free -- for a limited period. Newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers and websites are welcome to use our articles -- please credit the writers and the Georgia Online News Service.

Send your comments and any story ideas to executive editor John Sugg at You can also call us at 800-891-3459.

Today's GONSO

Nuclear Finance Bill Sails through House Panel

by Maggie Lee
In an 11-1 vote with one abstention, a Georgia House subcommittee has endorsed the controversial Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act, meaning the bill could come before the whole House as early as Tuesday.
Full Story

Economy is toughest for (best) older workers

by Nadirah Z. Sabir
Baby boomers are showing the bruises from a volatile job market in a youth-obsessed culture. Yet, from all indicators, companies will desperately need older workers to fill skilled labor gaps in the coming decade.
Full Story


School vouchers: People are capable of making their own decisions

by Susan Laccetti Meyers
A small business owner and former member of the Atlanta Journal editorial board thinks parents should be able to use their own tax dollars to transfer their children to the public or private school of their choice.
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
The Oscars: Wondrously Inventive and Well Executed, With a Gloss of Genuine Sentiment
by Eleanor Ringel Cater
Nuclear Finance Bill Breezes through House Committee
by Maggie Lee
Congressman Sanford Bishop: A Powerful Peanut Industry Politico
by Maynard Eaton
To Better Serve Georgia, the DOT Must Change
by Sonny Perdue, Casey Cagle and Glenn Richardson

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