Smart Strategies for Older Job Seekers

Jobs, employees, and employers must adjust to shifting financial and demographic realities.

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Even before the Great Recession, a rising percentage of retirement-age folks were still working. The economy was strong, consumers were spending like crazy, and lots of jobs were, in physical terms at least, not taxing for older employees.

Today, the percentage of people over age 65 who are working or seeking work is reaching new industrial-era highs. The reasons for the continued trend, of course, have changed drastically.

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The economy and consumer spending are weak, and job growth has been anemic as well. Retirement plans have been deferred, if not destroyed, for millions of Americans. So, it's either back to work, or if one's lucky, keeping a solid job as long as you can. Retirement is still in the cards, perhaps. But for many, it now includes at least part-time work until age 70.

Still, these largely negative factors are driving lots of positive changes that will help older Americans fashion solid work-retirement plans. For the past few years, a foundation-funded initiative called Tapping Mature Talent has worked with the U.S. Labor Department. The effort has produced 10 demonstration sites throughout the country to help develop successful ways to find, train, and employ older workers.

So far, the sites have tried lots of different approaches, and some best practices are emerging from these efforts, according to Amy Sherman. She is an associate vice president at the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning, a Chicago-based nonprofit that's been providing assistance to the sites. Here are some of the program's most appealing thoughts and efforts to date:

Credit for experience. Many older job seekers have deep and rich personal experiences that would make them qualified to succeed at jobs, she says. But often, this knowledge does not translate into the more formal work experiences most employers are seeking. Trying to create certification programs or even seek college credits for such experience can develop the third-party credentials that would lead to a job.

You are a brand. Aggressive personal promotion has become a standard employment technique. Many older people are uncomfortable tooting their own horn, and may not know how to use the social media tools that have been megaphones for job seekers. "It's almost like learning how to be a salesperson for yourself and of branding yourself," Sherman says. "This is really challenging."

Career navigators. Today's workplace can be daunting, particularly for someone who's been out of the workforce for even only a few years. Specific job skills, particularly involving computers, may need to be relearned. Job-search and interviewing techniques have also been transformed by the Internet and the explosion of social media and networking sites. Having a single "go-to" point person to coordinate available job-placement services has proven very helpful.

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Work for free. Unpaid internships can be a great way to get your foot in the door of an industry or employer you like. You get experience, an addition to your resume, and knowledge of how to improve your skills and attractiveness to employers.

Reverse job fairs. Instead of having employers in booths and job seekers going from booth to booth, a reverse job fair switches these roles. The job applicants are in the booths and are pre-screened by attending employers, who then come up to speak to them. Employers can decide how best to use their time. Job applicants are more comfortable because they know the person coming to their booth is already interested in speaking with them.

Computer and technology training. This is a must-have for nearly all job applicants and is particularly useful for seniors. Not that anyone admits it openly, but there often is an assumption that older people are not good or comfortable with computers. Demonstrating competence in this area may overcome an unstated but underlying bias against employing older workers.

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Flextime and part-time jobs. Being technically competent can also help older employees who wish to either work part time or have flexible schedules, including telecommuting for all or part of their schedules. "Although it can be focused on making the work place more accommodating to the mature worker, it's actually making it better for all workers," Sherman says.

Age bias. It's out there, and training programs can provide tools to deal with it. "Whether real or perceived, many job seekers report back that they believe there is age bias," Sherman says. "One of the things we can do is help job seekers respond to questions that they may think reflect some age bias. We can help them frame their answers in a way that gets to the intent of the question without the age-related implications."

Workplace readiness. Some of the pilot programs are having success on two related fronts. One program provides participants with a certification saying they completed a program that has prepared them for employment. Employers like that. Another is working on effective ways to translate the many practical lifetime experiences of older persons into educational equivalents that can be packaged and presented to prospective employers.

Twitter: @PhilMoeller