Even before the Great Recession, a rising percent 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 percent of people over age 65 who are working or seeking work has reached new highs. But the reasons for the continued trend have changed drastically.
The economy and consumer spending have recovered slowly, and job growth has been anemic. Retirement plans have been deferred, if not destroyed, for millions of Americans. So, it's either back to work, or if you're 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 worked with the U.S. Department of Labor. The effort produced 10 demonstration sites across the country to help develop successful ways to find, train and employ older workers. Even though the project started at the same time as the economic downturn, the sites achieved a 50 percent job placement rate, on average.
During the initiative from 2009 to 2012, people at the locations tried different approaches, and some best practices emerged from these efforts, according to Amy Sherman, an associate vice president at the Council for Adult & Experiential Learning, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provided assistance to the sites. Here are some of the program's most helpful findings:
1. Get credit for what you know. Many older job seekers have 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 employers are seeking. Enrolling in a certification program or seeking college credit for such experience can develop the third-party credentials that would lead to a job. CAEL has built a college credit predictor tool that can help translate experience into college-credit equivalents.
2. You are a brand. Aggressive personal promotion has become a standard employment technique. Yet many older people are uncomfortable tooting their own horn, and may not know how to use the social media tools that can be 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."
3. Career navigators. Today's workplace can be daunting, particularly for someone who's been out of the workforce for 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 sites. Having a "go-to" point person to coordinate job placement services has proven helpful.
4. Offer your services. 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 résumé and knowledge of how to improve your skills.
5. 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 prescreened by 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.
6. Computer and technology training. This is a must-have for nearly all job applicants and is particularly useful for mature job seekers. 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 older workers.
7. Flextime and part-time jobs. Technology skills can also help older employees who wish to work part-time or have flexible schedules, since telecommuting may be an option for all or part of their schedules. "Although it can be focused on making the workplace more accommodating to the mature worker, it's actually making it better for all workers," Sherman says.
8. 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."
9. Workplace readiness. Some of the pilot programs had success on two related fronts. One program provided participants with a certification saying they completed a program that has prepared them for employment, and employers responded that they liked that.