En español | After COVID-19 hit the U.S. early this year, more than 40 million workers lost their jobs. Never before had so many Americans been laid off in such a short time, and older workers were hit hardest. From March through June, 7 percent of all workers between ages 55 and 70 left the labor force, compared with 4.8 percent of those under 55. The unemployment rate soared to nearly 15 percent in April; the last time the nation's jobless rate had climbed to double digits was a decade ago, during the Great Recession. We know the economy gradually recovered from that slump, but what about the older people who had lost their jobs back then? How did they fare, and what might their stories teach us about how those who are 50-plus today can recover from a job loss?
To answer these questions, I took an in-depth look at a large-scale layoff I had covered 10 years ago for The New York Times. In 2010, Whirlpool closed a giant refrigerator plant in Evansville, Indiana, and moved the operation to Mexico. That action threw 1,100 people out of work and into a frightening unknown. “It's devastating to our family and to everyone in the plant,” one older worker told me then. “I wonder where we'll be two years or four years from now.” Ten years later, I discovered that many of those older workers, despite some painful twists and turns, have managed to rebound. The stories of how they did it offer hope, inspiration and even practical advice to older unemployed Americans today who are struggling to get back on their feet.
'A very terrifying time'
Kathy Duncan, now 62, liked most things about her job at the Whirlpool plant, a factory as large as 30 football fields. She got along well with her team of 80 coworkers, who assembled ice makers. “I shot in the freon and refrigerant,” Duncan recalls. She also liked the pay — $18.53 an hour — a good wage for blue-collar work in southern Indiana a decade ago.
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During her 21 years at Whirlpool, Duncan lived a middle-class life, raising two daughters and a son with her partner, John. Like many of her colleagues, Duncan never suspected that the plant might close until she attended an all-hands meeting in the summer of 2009. “I had no inkling that this was coming down,” Duncan says. “It was a very terrifying time.” The plant — which had built P-47 fighter planes for Republic Aviation during World War II — closed 10 months later, one of hundreds to shutter during the Great Recession, when the nation lost more than 2 million manufacturing jobs.
Fortunately for Duncan and her colleagues, a team of government agencies and nonprofits forged an ambitious plan to help the laid-off factory workers land new jobs. Three nearby colleges and several nonprofits interviewed almost all 1,100 Whirlpool workers to ask about their immediate needs (including whether they had enough money for food and shelter), to assess their skills and to figure out how best to retrain them for fields with job openings. The focus was on steering them to what economic-development researchers said were “the 50 hot jobs” in the state's economy at the time; these included medical assistant, HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) technician, and positions in power plant, supply-chain and industrial management. Whirlpool, for its part, offered severance pay, extended benefits and help with retraining and unemployment assistance via partnerships with the factory's union local and government agencies. Because the workers had lost their jobs as a result of Whirlpool's moving its refrigerator operation to Mexico, the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program paid for most of the retraining. That funding isn't available to most people who lost jobs because of the pandemic, but employment experts note that there are other streams of federal and state assistance to help pay for retraining.
One of the colleges involved in the effort was Ivy Tech Community College, which has 43 locations across Indiana. According to Kelly Cozart, vice chancellor for academic affairs at Ivy Tech, many of the older Whirlpool workers who returned to school fared better than the younger workers. “The more seasoned people were kind of used to change,” explains Cozart, noting that they had often faced temporary layoffs. “Some were thrilled with the opportunity to get an education.”
Laid off? Here's Help
1. Ask Uncle Sam
The federal government supports a network of nearly 2,400 one-stop job centers to assess your skills, steer you to job openings and inform you about training opportunities (877-US2-JOBS; careeronestop.org).
2. Get Targeted Assistance
3. Connect With Employers
On Jan. 28, AARP will host a digital career fair, during which applicants can speak directly with companies looking for older workers. The fair is free, but registration is required. For details, go to aarp.org/onlinecareerexpo.
Count Kathy Duncan among them. Confident that Ivy Tech would open doors for her, Duncan went there to study for an associate's degree in business administration. Her diploma in hand, she applied for office jobs at pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, at the University of Southern Indiana and a dozen other places. “It was a little daunting, applying for jobs at 51, 52, 53, and they're asking why, all of sudden, you need a career change,” says Duncan. She was rejected by all of them. Frustrated, she fell back on skills she had used in previous jobs and took a position as a home health aide. The pay: $15.53 an hour, which was $3 less than at Whirlpool.
Around that time, her father died. Duncan speaks of him with great warmth. “Dad always told me, ‘You'll know when the right job comes along.'"
One year into Duncan's home-care job, a friend from Whirlpool told her about an opening at Hope of Evansville, a nonprofit that provides housing and credit counseling for low- and moderate-income families. She applied and was hired to answer phones, do client intake interviews, generate invoices and perform other administrative duties. After two years, the agency's foreclosure-prevention counselor left. Duncan studied for that position, passed the state and federal certifying exams, and got the job. In her four years in that $44,000-a-year spot (about $22 an hour), she has saved hundreds of people from foreclosure — she proudly mentions she has a 98 percent success rate. Since the pandemic hit and large-scale layoffs ensued, Duncan has been inundated with foreclosure cases. “I saved three families from foreclosure last Friday,” she tells me.
Although it's heartbreaking to hear so many stories of hardship, which she knows too well, she says the position offers her “a sense of peace and ease.” By seizing an opportunity to go back to school and by persisting despite some disappointments, Duncan has been able to establish herself in a completely new field.
Not many of today's laid-off workers have access to such coordinated assistance to guide them toward retraining, largely because a plant closure triggers a different level of government help than the more scattershot and hopefully temporary layoffs of the COVID-19 downturn. But every unemployed person in the U.S. should know there is help available. The federal government supports a network of nearly 2,400 job centers, with many of the same types of services that the Whirlpool workers were offered. AARP also provides career help to job seekers over 50. For those considering retraining, many employment experts say the hottest fields for jobs right now include health care, medical billing, software development and warehouse work; there are also lots of openings in trucking and day care. With many states’ labor departments overwhelmed by COVID-19 and with the huge numbers of people who are unemployed, numerous agencies haven't been able to reach out to the jobless in the same concerted way Indiana did with the Whirlpool workers. This means that today's unemployed need to push more on their own — and be tenacious in seeking help.
A spotlight on skills
If you've been laid off, going back to school isn't the only option. In recent years, reemployment experts have put increased emphasis on assessing workers’ skills. The reason: The capabilities many workers have accumulated throughout their lives can often be transferred to other jobs and other fields, notes Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “When someone loses a job, it's painful, but it's not the end of the game. With patience and persistence, doors will open for workers who have transferable talents.”
That's why it's important to take stock of all of a person's capabilities. The laid-off Whirlpool workers were helped by elaborate assessments. “We had a special software system that took the knowledge, skills and abilities of an assembler and shone light on what skills they don't necessarily realize they have,” recalls Sara Worstell, executive director of the Grow Southwest Indiana Workforce Board. Laid-off workers today can get such assessments through the government-backed American Job Centers network; its website, careeronestop.org, has a section that walks you through how to assess your job skills.
Jobless workers can quickly increase their employability by obtaining additional credentials, says New York state's labor commissioner, Roberta Reardon. “You can take a six-week or semester course and get a nationally recognized credential that makes you highly employable,” she points out. But such certificates aren't always necessary. According to Michael Lang, director of employment services for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, employers are growing more flexible about accepting experience as a substitute for a specific diploma or certificate. “It's not necessarily true that they're only looking for the person with the exact education and training you traditionally expect,” says Lang. “They are now much more open to considering transferable skills from your previous experience."
For Tyrone Garnett, now 54, that's how it worked. At Whirlpool, he was Mr. Versatility, filling in at a dozen different mechanical jobs. When the plant closed, he explains, “it felt like the world was pulled out from under my feet.” For seven months he searched for work. Then he heard of openings at Accuride, a bus-, truck- and tractor-wheel manufacturer with a facility in Henderson, Kentucky, about 11 miles south of Evansville.
"My interview went very well,” Garnett remembers. “They saw that I'm a man who keeps himself fairly fit and probably wouldn't miss a lot of work.” Accuride valued the versatility he demonstrated at Whirlpool, he says. He currently oversees seven robot welders and has to know how to fix them when they get stuck. Additionally, he drives a forklift, inspects the truck wheels and repairs faulty ones. “I'm actually making more money now than I did at Whirlpool,” he adds. “I have been blessed.”
Marsha Luttrell, now 57, had worked at Whirlpool for 19 years when the plant closed. She plunged into a retraining course for hospital jobs but, as she puts it, “I couldn't wrap my mind around this subject.” Instead, she switched into classes to become a heavy-equipment operator, a job much in demand at the time, including at nearby coal mines. But after she earned her certificate, she was passed over for jobs time and again.
"I applied to every coal mine within 100 miles,” she says. “I didn't hear from any of them. But there were some men in their 20s in my class. They didn't even finish the class because the coal mines swept them up so fast.” How could she not suspect age and sex bias?
Discrimination was certainly an issue for older job seekers in 2010 — and it still is. In a recent nationwide study, researchers sent out more than 40,000 applications posing as young (ages 29 to 31), middle-aged (49 to 51) or older (64 to 66) workers. The applications for people in their 60s got far fewer responses than did those for the youngest workers, the study found, and the magnitude of bias against women was much larger than against men.
A different survey, released in March 2020, asked employers their views on older workers. According to one of that survey's authors, Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, the employers said older workers were more expensive. But studies show that age and experience lead to increased productivity that offsets any increased labor costs. And a study of a Mercedes-Benz truck assembly plant in
Germany showed that, on average, worker productivity rose steadily from age 25 to age 60. Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at the New School in New York City who focuses on older employees, tells me that employers are seeing that “older workers do what it takes to get the job done.”
Still, none of that helped Luttrell get a call back from a coal mine. Instead, she accepted what Michael Bernick, former director of California's Employment Development Department, calls a lifeboat job. “Get whatever job you can,” Bernick advises laid-off workers. “You're helped by the immediate income, and you're always more attractive to employers if you're working.” Luttrell's lifeboat was a job as a $10-an-hour dietary aide at a local hospital — earning her far less than her $17.35-an-hour wage at Whirlpool. After five years at the hospital, she took an $11.50-an-hour job at a Walmart deli and bakery. Because she was earning so little, she and her husband were forced to file for bankruptcy.
"I came home from work one day and sat on the couch and cried,” she recalls. That's when the couple decided it was time for her to try again to use her heavy-equipment training. They discovered that the logistics company her husband had retired from was hiring, and she got a job there as a forklift operator. Luttrell loves her new position, even though she still makes $1.35 an hour less than she did at Whirlpool 10 years ago.
Another Whirlpool worker who took a lifeboat job is Michael “Billie” Strickland. Now 57, he pursued training in industrial maintenance, a highly skilled specialty that involves repairing, maintaining and modifying elaborate factory machinery. When Whirlpool laid him off, it was an especially difficult time for his family — his wife was disabled due to a severe back ailment, and his oldest daughter and her two kids had moved in with them. “There was a lot of scraping, clawing, but we made it through,” he says.
At an Ivy Tech jobs fair, he learned that a factory in town, Pittsburgh Glass Works, had a large industrial-maintenance crew, so he applied there. At the time, however, the factory had no openings in that field. So, in a sizable step backward, Strickland took a $13-an-hour production job at Pittsburgh Glass Works that was far below his $18-an-hour Whirlpool wage. After six months, Strickland got a break: An industrial-maintenance job opened up. He transferred into that department, and his pay jumped to $19 an hour. After nearly seven years in industrial maintenance, he was earning $26 an hour (about $54,000 annually), 44 per-cent more than his wages at Whirlpool. But a few months ago he received some bad news. In late May, Pittsburgh Glass Works announced it would close its Evansville plant at the end of December and lay off about 360 workers.
Having rebounded from a layoff once before, Strickland is optimistic. “I can sell myself with things I've learned,” he notes. “I've got valuable skills."
Ready for change
After the Whirlpool factory closed, some workers found themselves unexpectedly retired. For Nick Pope, this was no great hardship. A quality-control auditor who had worked at Whirlpool for 44 years, he was 62 when the plant closed, and he didn't find another job he liked. He is now happily retired, helped by his union pension of nearly $2,000 a month, plus Social Security. “I'm comfortable. We're doing good,” he says, pointing out that his wife recently retired from Bristol Myers Squibb. “We've got three kids and eight grandkids. They keep me busy."
Jean Mayberry, on the other hand, was just 52 when the plant closed and is more of an involuntary retiree. “I was too young to retire and too old to find a job,” she says. After losing her assembly-line job — she had helped to make refrigerator doors — she studied for an associate's degree in business administration and “applied to 75 different places,” everything from banks to TV stations. She rarely heard back. Finally, she landed a low-level position with a bank in Evansville, for just $10 an hour, $8 an hour less than she had been making at Whirlpool. “It was a drastic pay cut,” she adds. She quit after a year, bored with the job and dismayed with the low pay. Pessimistic about finding another spot, Mayberry retired; she lives on Social Security plus $1,500 a month from her pension and her ex-husband's pension. She'd like to have worked longer, but she has one consolation: She gets to spend lots of time with her seven grandchildren.
Tamra Bottoms, who was 51 when she was laid off from her production-coordinator position, took a different tack. She studied for a “hot” field: power plant operations. When she finished her associate's degree, she applied for dozens of jobs, but nothing came through. “I was either overqualified or they would tell me they'd find someone more qualified,” she says.
One day Bottoms saw that a craft brewery was looking for someone to manage its operations. She applied for and landed the job. She enjoyed “every single minute” of her five years there, she notes. She didn't like the pay, though: $10 an hour, plus whatever tips she could hustle by, for instance, giving tours of the brewery. The total was well below her $17.33-an-hour Whirlpool wage. “I found out that many people see an associate degree as nothing more than a glorified high school diploma,” she explains. “It wasn't enough. I felt I had to go further.”
She took a slew of online courses while working at the brewery. Wanting a job that helped others, she quit to work at Easterseals Rehabilitation Center and later for the Indiana state government, where she, until recently, helped low-income workers find childcare so they could keep their jobs. “The people I served are the people busting their tails right now,” says Bottoms. “They are the essential workers.” Laid off from that position in the spring, she accepted a job in a local hospital's access and logistics department.
Decades ago, Bottoms had turned down a college scholarship after high school and gone straight to Whirlpool because of its good wages. After getting laid off, she became serious about studying, earning a bachelor's degree and then two master's degrees — in nonprofit management and strategic management. Her advice for those who confront a sudden layoff after age 50: “You change. You have to or you won't succeed. You have to be a chameleon. You have to absorb your surroundings and learn to adjust."
Labor writer Steven Greenhouse is the author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.