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Employer Spotlight: Penman PR

Firm shows why switching careers and doing freelance work can help older adults

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In August 2001, when Patti Hill was laid off from her job in the tech industry in Austin, Texas, she decided it was time for a career change. So instead of looking for another job in the technology fields, which were experiencing a downturn and widespread layoffs, she chose to start a public relations firm.

Hill launched Penman PR a few weeks later, and for the past 20 years she and her team have used their years of wide-ranging experience to provide public relations support for a variety of tech industry start-ups. Penman PR is one of more than 1,000 firms that have signed AARP's Employer Pledge, a commitment to promoting equal opportunity for all employees, regardless of age.

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Penman PR uses an innovative approach to meet clients’ needs. Instead of building a large staff of employees, the company mostly works with independent contractors — in particular, experienced professionals who are looking to change careers, like Hill was. The firm provides these people with the training and support they need to switch fields successfully. What's more, they get the independence to work when and how they choose. In 2020 more than 2 million people turned to freelance, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a study from Upwork. Contract work and freelance positions accounted for 36 percent of all jobs in the workforce.

Hill recently spoke with AARP about the opportunities Penman PR can offer people who are considering transitioning to a career in public relations. The following are lightly edited excerpts of that conversation.

Penman PR trains people who want to start careers in public relations. What types of people have you found made the switch well?

Hill: The people who we most enjoy working with are those individuals who have transitioned from another career. Interestingly enough, I don't look for PR people because, to me, having a house full of people that have the same background doesn't provide the diversity for brainstorming and different perspectives that an organization with people from different backgrounds can. Over the 20 years we've been in business, the people I've had work here include a professor of business psychology and an attorney. My current business partner was in hospitality.

I've looked for that diversity because public relations, in and of itself, is teachable. What's not teachable is the ability to strategize. And mature individuals who come from different backgrounds will typically have the maturity and the capability of strategizing on behalf of a client. The PR portion is the easiest part. I can't teach [strategizing]. I can't teach maturity.

Many people might be hesitant to make the jump to freelance or contract work. What would you tell them are the benefits of those types of employment?

Hill: Because of the financial volatility of companies, job security isn't really what people think it is. So many people think, Oh, my God, I've got a job. I'm set. But what they don't understand is they are actually at the whim of whoever employs them. Anything — again, anything — can happen. But a PR practitioner with Penman PR has the opportunity to work with any number of accounts. You know, one or six, it's really up to the individual how many accounts they want.

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So, say you have six client accounts and one goes away. You still have an income; you still have a career, right? You're still viable; you're still up and running. And you then have the opportunity to fill that slot with another client. But if you have a job and you lose that job, you're done. You have to find another job, and you have nothing until that, you know, the next job comes along.

[Freelance and contract work] gives an individual the freedom of how much they want to work and when they want to work. We offer a career opportunity — it's not really a job. And it's perfect for re-careering adults if someone would like to bring their expertise from whatever field they're in into the public relations realm.

How have older workers contributed to Penman PR's success?

Hill: Older adults have so much experience and knowledge and are typically incredibly grateful for new and interesting situations. I think that discounting people because of age is doing an organization a disservice. I'm 64. I would hire another 64-year-old right this minute or a 74-year-old. Age doesn't matter, as long as they have the ability to be strategic. I think older workers are a giant asset. I think they're a huge value to an organization.

Kenneth Terrell covers employment, age discrimination, work and jobs, careers and Congress 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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