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7 Deadly Sins for Older Job Seekers

... and how to avoid them.

Older job seekers face long odds in today’s grim marketplace. Nearly 7 percent of age 55-plus adults are unemployed, and they’re competing against five other jobless people for every opening. Is there any hope for them?

“Sure there is,” says Robert Skladany, research director of Retirementjobs.com. “What the statistics don’t say is that people are landing jobs if they are resourceful and diligent about looking for them.”

But some older adults are sabotaging their prospects by making common mistakes, a new study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute suggests. Instead of analyzing their skills, abilities and preferences and realistically assessing the job market, they’re relying on their long resumés to make their case to employers.


“The harsh truth is, nobody cares about your experience,” says workplace expert David DeLong, author of the report “Buddy, Can You Spare a Job?” “In a performance-driven marketplace, you have to frame your experience and show how you can solve a company’s problems. You can’t expect the potential employer to figure that out.”

The study, released Oct. 13, also found that older job seekers routinely overestimate their computer skills, fail to seek extra training, and may feel ambivalent about returning to work in spite of financial need. If potential employers sense that ambivalence in an interview, it can kill any chances of a hire.

In a recession, people of all ages discover that their elementary job-hunting skills, adequate in times of prosperity, are woefully lacking in a highly competitive marketplace, says Richard N. Bolles, author of the annual guide What Color Is Your Parachute?

400 resumés don’t help

“Older job hunters tend to rely on what worked before, like sending out 400 resumés,” says Bolles, “In this brutal economy, that just doesn’t work.” Job seekers need multiple strategies such as making an inventory of transferable skills, targeting fields of interest and key employers, making cold calls and joining job-support groups.

Last February, designer Michael Locascio started calling recruiters after he was abruptly laid off from a Chicago-area company. “Usually within a couple of weeks, I would find something, even just project-based work, but this time there was nothing or the pay was ridiculously low,” he says.

Locascio, 50, always disdained networking. “I felt like you’re always asking someone for a favor,” he says. But last summer, out of desperation, he joined St. Hubert Job and Networking Ministry, one of Chicago’s largest free job-support groups. “There was a no-whining policy,” he says. “You’re there to stay focused on the task.”

The ministry breaks participants into small groups of eight to 12 job seekers from different occupations who problem-solved, shared job leads and held each other accountable for progress. “That helped to keep me going—seeing others land jobs,” says Locascio.

He also used social media tools such as Facebook and LinkedIn, where he joined a niche group for those skilled in computer-assisted design. “I started posting and got some recommendations. That’s how I turned up a job I hadn’t seen listed anywhere else,” he says. After a webcam interview in September, Locascio, who is single, relocated to central New Jersey to work for a commercial lighting company.

Energy counts

Older adults frequently feel they have encountered age bias and are infuriated by it, the MetLife study reported, but workplace experts caution that age discrimination in hiring is difficult to document, and anger does not help land a job. They advise impressing a younger hiring manager with a sharp personal appearance and by displaying both their skills and their passion for the work.

“Age shouldn’t be an issue, but what is an issue is an older individual’s energy, enthusiasm for their work and commitment to avoid obsolescence,” says Bob Podgorski, a human resources executive and cofounder of the St. Hubert group.

A consistent finding of the study was that older adults overestimate their computer knowledge and fail to upgrade their technical skills. Only 36 percent of those surveyed sought any job training, even though employment experts say that is often a key to a successful job search.

In July, Nubia Hernandez, 57, of Orlando, Fla., resigned as supervisor of the employee cafeteria at Marriott World Center after the hotel reduced her hours. She flooded the local hotel industry with resumés, but got only one interview. Then, even that lead dried up.

“I was very upset,” says Hernandez. Her partner, Mark Hoewing, asked what she wanted to do that would make her happy, regardless of a paycheck. “I told him, ‘I love children and would like to work with them.’”

Hernandez, an elementary schoolteacher in her native Colombia, passed Florida’s online certification course for day care workers and has just landed a job at a day care facility. “I’m so happy to be working with 3- and 4-year-olds,” she says. “I’ll also be teaching them a little Spanish, so now I can use my language skills and my teaching background.”

Social skills are a plus

Another strategy that job counselors suggest is approaching small and medium-sized companies in healthy sectors such as education, health care and government. Older adults’ social skills are valued in customer-contact jobs in temporary staffing agencies, mutual fund and health insurance companies—even high-end grocery chains.

Other businesses actively seeking older workers can be found at AARP’s National Employer Team, Retirementjobs.com, YourEncore.com, RetiredBrains.com, Workforce50.com and other websites for 50-plus workers. Snagajob.com is a source for part-time positions.

“Above all, nurture your network—that’s how older adults get hired,” says Retirementjobs.com’s Skladany. Many businesses, swamped with online applications, do not list jobs but prefer to hire from within or through word of mouth.

“That’s why it’s critical to talk to friends and family, or join a community or faith-based job-support group to seek resources and encouragement,” says Skladany. “If you try to do a job search in isolation, you’ll fail.”

The 7 Deadly Sins of Job Hunting

Here’s what many older job seekers do—and you should not.

1. “I’ll just do what I was doing before.” Many jobs and industries have changed radically in recent years. Identify your transferable skills and explore new ways to use them. Find self-assessment tests and tools at jobhuntersbible.com, rileyguide.com and job-hunt.org.


2. “My experience speaks for itself.” Don’t start the interview with, “I’ve had 35 years in sales.” Instead, ask questions and use examples that highlight your experience, such as “I know the pitfalls of this sort of situation, and I have the contacts to work it out.”

3. “I’ve always been successful, so why should things be different now?” In today’s job market, ability trumps seniority. It’s a plus to say, “I work well with Gen X and Gen Y.” Seek volunteer jobs working with younger people to get needed experience.

4. “I just need a job. I don’t have time for touchy-feely stuff.” Be prepared for questions such as “What’s your vision?” Many older job seekers fail to reflect on how their skills fit into a larger arena. Devote time to a serious inventory of your strengths, values and assets.

5. “Of course I’m good with computers.” If you’re an expert at Windows 98, worked in just one organization or have been out of the workplace for a few years, rethink this. Find out what your target markets need and get the necessary training.

6. “I’ll just use a recruiter or some coaching to get another job.” It’s smart to seek help, but successful networking requires a plan and plenty of legwork. Tap into online networking tools like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. And talk to friends and family, or join a community or faith-based job-support group to seek resources and encouragement.

7. “I’ll become a consultant … or a security guard!” Older job seekers often chase unrealistic jobs. Ask yourself if you have the necessary skills, temperament and physical endurance for a position. Then ask friends and advisers for feedback. The more realistic you are about yourself, the better chance you have of success.

Elizabeth Pope writes about work and retirement. She lives in Portland, Maine.

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