Jobless rate for older workers is lower, not better

October 28, 2011

Rick Lopatin has been looking for work for three years. The 56-year-old is the former chief financial officer of a middle-market pharmaceutical company in the Chicago area; ever since a merger and his subsequent job loss in 2008, he’s been job-hunting and networking intensively, and he’s landed  several interim CFO engagements – including one at a medical devices company on Long Island.

That company offered to make the job permanent, but Lopatin turned it down. He figured the position might have lasted just a few years, and it would have required relocating from the Chicago suburbs, where Lopatin’s wife has a secure managerial position at one of Chicago’s largest hospital systems — a job she’s held for 15 years. “We just couldn’t afford to put that income at risk,” Lopatin explains.

Lopatin’s experience helps illustrate the sharp contrasts in national unemployment data between older and younger workers. The unemployment rate for workers over age 55 is much lower than for the workforce as a whole – it stood at 6.7 percent in September, compared with the 9.1 percent national rate. But at the same time, workers over age 55 who do lose their jobs tend to be jobless far longer – 54.8 weeks, compared with 38.6 weeks for younger workers as of last week.

Reduced mobility helps explain the longer job search time, says Sara E. Rix, an expert on workforce and employment issues at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “Older workers may be ready and willing to move, but they’re not able to do it due to a spouse with a well-established career,” she says. Age discrimination plays a role, too – and Rix thinks some older workers  struggle to acclimate to job hunting when they’ve out of the market for a long time. “At least initially after a job loss, there’s evidence that workers who do get offers tend to hold out for something better. As the jobless period gets longer, they’re willing to accept less than at the beginning.”

What’s more, the lower 55+ jobless rate doesn’t really mean older workers are having an easier time finding new jobs, Rix says. Rather, she thinks it reflects a trend among employers to hang on longer to more experienced workers. The lower jobless rate also reflects a greater tendency of older workers to become discouraged about finding new jobs, and drop out of the labor force entirely. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t count workers who have stopped looking for jobs in its unemployment calculations, and that brings down the overall 55+ jobless rate.

But don’t mistake discouragement for lack of interest in a job. Rix notes that there’s been a steady rise in labor force participation by older workers – in fact, the number of employed workers over age 55 is up 11 percent since December 2007.

If you’re over age 50 and struggling to get back into the labor force, focus on these strategies:

Stress recent experience
This is challenging for candidates who have been out of work for longer periods. “Some companies just won’t hire someone who isn’t currently working,” says Lopatin. The question I’m always asked is, ‘What have you been doing lately?’ ” He’s able to respond by discussing his temporary CFO engagements, consulting assignments and even his volunteer work with an early childhood education non-profit in his community.

Keep skills fresh
Adams advises all her clients to take training classes. “It doesn’t even matter what the topic is – you’ve got to show that you’re keeping your skills current.” Lopatin is a regular attendee at Kellogg School of Management seminars, where he is an alum; he also stays fresh by attending health care industry seminars and sessions sponsored by financial professional associations.

Stress the advantages of age
“I always advise my clients to discuss their deep experience, politically savvy, their work ethic and extensive industry contacts,” says job search coach Judi Adams. “Older workers are a proven product, they require less supervision and most of them don’t have the schedule conflicts of kids at home – and they definitely don’t need maternity leave.”

Vitality counts
In interview situations, be sure to let employers know that you aren’t ready to retire, that you are full of energy and and haven’t let your skills get out-of-date. “If you went hiking last weekend, slip that into the conversation so you show you are still physically active,” she says.

As always – network, network network
Social networks such as LinkedIn, and real-world industry events, are critical for expanding your network and getting through to companies, which increasingly rely on automation to sift and sort resumes. “Linkedin is absolutely a requirement for all job seekers,” Adams says. “Be on it, and be active. Follow the companies you’re targeting – and if you do get a foot in the door, mention it!”

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