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Lots of schmoozing at AARP-sponsored job fairs brings job seekers opportunity, hope

                        Related
                        • Jobs outlook still grim
                        • Tips for jobs seekers
                        • Talk about the working life

En español | Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be attending an AARP job fair. But now at the age of 64, with my job security at risk, here I was.

The place was the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place Hotel in Chicago, bustling with 1,450 people, clutching résumés and seriously focused on the task at hand.

There’s no question that older job seekers face special challenges in finding work. The June job report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 55-plus workers, on average, had been unemployed for 40.7 weeks, compared with applicants ages 25-54, who had been out of work for 36.9 weeks.

During the three-hour fair, sponsored by AARP and the Employment Guide, many people told me they’d come to meet prospective employers—some 30 companies were attending, each with jobs to fill. But our chats also revealed that mingling in the aisles with fellow job seekers helped ease the mental strain of being out of work.

“I need to stay positive and that’s why I’m at this job fair,” said Iriss Blaine, an administrative assistant and graphic designer for 30 years. “I’m looking for leads and connections and I made a few, so it has been very productive. I never thought at the age of 59 I would be unemployed. These are interesting times and they are very challenging.”

Penny Goldman, 62, told me she’s been looking for work for “a couple of years.” Recently, she’s been doing registration duty at conventions. She came to learn about retraining and is thinking of going back to school to find a position that will be recession-proof.

It was good to hear from several employers that older people come to the table with some advantages. “I think a lot of companies now need experience,” said Tom Baron of the Employment Guide, which cosponsored the event. “They don’t want to waste time training somebody.”

Ditto, said David Foss of wireless Internet provider Pinnacle Clear. “Many of these people have been displaced in this economy, and we find they are a better fit because not as much training is involved.” Foss said he’d added some attendees to his sales team.

Judy Heslin of Guardian Security Systems said she “looks for the more mature person with a good work ethic and experience in customer service.”

Sell your experience

Several of the recruiters offered specific advice on how to capitalize on having been around the track. “Find start-ups who couldn’t possibly have your years of leadership, sell yourself in that way,” said Steven Brooks of Guugos, which produces video cover letters for job seekers.

I chatted with Bill Colbourne, senior vice president of human resources and administration for Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, one of the sponsors of the Chicago job fair. In his opinion, the older worker has to be smart and not perpetuate the stereotype of an older employee.

“You need to be energetic, you need to look good,” he said, “and when you have that inevitable question about what kind of job you are looking for, don’t say ‘oh, the job we are interviewing for is a great job’ or ‘any job will do.’ I think what you need to say is something like ‘I am looking for a position where I can use my experience and my skills and I am looking for a position where I can grow and learn.’ ”

Michele Bieze, an area recruiting manager for Radio Shack, also stressed the importance of enthusiasm: “Just showing us their passion about what they are going to do—so they are excited about it, whether it is coming in and liking electronics, not being afraid but wanting to learn about it, enjoying hearing and talking about cellphones.”

Bieze also told me why she recruits 50-plus workers. “We want people in our stores to identify with our customers. So it’s a great opportunity—sometimes customers are more comfortable talking to someone who looks like them or is the same age.”

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