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Many Older Workers Trapped in Long-Term Unemployment

Job training programs could be key to getting them back to work

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Job loss isn’t easy for anyone, but older workers face particular challenges getting back to work. In September, more than 1.3 million workers age 55 and older were unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among job seekers in that age group, roughly half have been out of work for 27 weeks or more, which puts them in the category of the long-term unemployed.

Even though many employers are eager to hire, many of the openings may no longer fit the needs of the people who are looking for work, especially older adults who have had to balance health, family and retirement concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. The job market still needs time to adjust to these changing goals and desires, U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh said during a recent AARP event.

“People have had a year and a half of not working or working in [a business] that isn’t there anymore, and they’re saying, ‘We want to go back to something different. We don’t want to go back to the way it was,’” Walsh said. They “don’t want to go back to the same old job that [they] had before.”

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Given these changes in the job market and the desires of the long-term unemployed, the Labor Department and nonprofit organizations are starting to focus more on how older workers can get the training they need to help them switch into new careers.

“What we’re experiencing right now in our country is that as we think about job training programs, maybe in non-pandemic times we would be looking at emerging industries, emerging technology and how do we skill people up,” Walsh said. “Right now, what we’re looking at is how do we give people the tools they need and the skills they need to be able to get a job in this market, quite honestly, particularly older Americans.”

One option for lower-income older Americans who need additional job training is the federal Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). The program, which AARP Foundation participates in, matches older adults with nonprofits and public agencies so they earn income while building skills and self-confidence. In previous economic downturns, SCSEP has received federal funding to help people find jobs.  

The proposed Build Back Better bill would give the Labor Department more money for workforce development programs over the next five years. That legislation has not come to a vote yet, but it demonstrates that lawmakers are recognizing the need to provide training opportunities for people age 55 and older.

“As we think about the older individuals in our workforce, it is absolutely essential that lifelong learning continues so that older individuals in our workforce are still able to take advantage of the jobs of the future,” U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.) said at the event. Steil is cochair of the Congressional Future of Work Caucus.

Another option for older adults looking to gain marketable skills could be community colleges. In many cases, these institutions have programs designed with the help of local employers to help get older adults ready to fill job openings in the region. And, for workers who may not be able to commit time to going back to a classroom, there are online programs that can help the long-term unemployed develop skills that can make them more attractive to employers. For example, AARP recently launched Skills Builder for Work, which offers free, self-paced courses on how to use Microsoft Office or become successful as a remote worker, among hundreds of other options available through MindEdge Learning.

“It’s never too late to learn new skills because your talents are needed in America right now,” Walsh said.

Kenneth Terrell covers employment, age discrimination, work and jobs, careers, and the federal government for AARP. He previously worked for the Education Writers Association and U.S. News & World Report, where he reported on government and politics, business, education, science and technology, and lifestyle news.

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