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North Carolina: Helping Older Workers

Lisa Ramsey sees firsthand how the slumping economy impacts older workers in North Carolina.

Her organization, the Capital Area Workforce Development Board, oversees JobLink Career Centers at eight sites in Wake and Johnston counties. Increasingly, jobless workers over 50 turn to her agency for help.

Ramsey met recently with a 65-year-old woman who’d worked at one job for 30 years and was unsure how to begin her search for another. “We’ll help her create a custom resumé and handle interviews,” said Ramsey, a workforce development specialist. “We’re seeing that more and more.”

Ramsey said the board served 9,672 residents age 50-plus in 2008, accounting for more than 20 percent of those who sought help, and she expects that trend to increase.

“We’re already starting to see the influx of those boomers,” Ramsey said.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate hit 10.8 percent in March, when the state had the nation’s fourth highest unemployment rate. That’s the highest on records that date to 1976.

Sara Rix of AARP’s Public Policy Institute called the national figures—and the outlook for older workers—“bleak.”

Nationally, the unemployment rate of 13.5 percent for those 55 and older was the highest since 1983, Rix said. Older unemployed workers had been without jobs for an average of 26.6 weeks in April, compared with 22.9 weeks for those younger than 55.

The Capital Area board, the largest of 24 across North Carolina, hosts job fairs in the spring and fall. In March, for the first time ever, the board included job tips and other assistance specifically tailored for older job seekers. AARP was there. The fall job fair in Raleigh will expand those offerings for older workers, and AARP will again participate.

Ramsey has become an AARP Mature Workforce volunteer speaker for the state AARP office. She and a dozen others—including counselors from other agencies—completed training in early April. Their message to human resources managers and business groups on behalf of older workers comes as the state’s jobless rate continues to rise.

In North Carolina, the 55 to 64 workforce grew by more than 44 percent from 2000 to 2007. Nationally, those 55 and over are expected to account for 90 percent of the nation’s labor force growth from 2006 to 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than one in five workers is expected to be over 55.

But even good news for the state can have bad repercussions. Forbes magazine ranked Raleigh the number one city in the country for business and careers. Durham ranked third, Charlotte 19th. Such headlines draw newcomers looking for opportunity—and swell the ranks of those seeking jobs.

AARP North Carolina is spreading the word that keeping older workers is profitable.

“We want to encourage employers to retain their older workers … and to retrain them,” said Robert Jackson, director of AARP North Carolina.

Three North Carolina companies have been recognized by AARP in recent years for offering the best benefits and opportunities for workers age 50-plus: SAS Institute in Cary in 2005, Durham Regional Hospital in 2007, and Blue Cross Blue Shield in Durham in 2008.

Richard Walsh, chief human resources officer of Durham Regional Hospital, said his organization has not backed away from its commitment to older workers as jobs have disappeared during the recession. It’s important to treat older workers with respect, he said, especially if you want to retain the best people in fields where skilled professionals are in short supply, such as nursing.

Victor Marshall, director of UNC’s Institute on Aging in Chapel Hill, said the message that older workers provide needed skills is getting through.

“Years ago, it was hard to get companies interested, but that has changed,” Marshall said. “More companies are paying attention. AARP’s efforts are bearing fruit.”

Allen Norwood is a freelance writer living in Sherrills Ford, N.C.

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