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May 28, 2004

Bias Against Older Job Seekers in Frederick?

Joe Volz

Bias Against Older Job Seekers in Frederick?

Joe Volz

My fellow writer, Alan Imhoff, lamented in this space the other day that that there is "bias against someone who has retired and is looking for employment."

He noted that he can't understand why when he meets all the qualifications for the job, he is told he is overqualified or that the boss can't pay a salary commensurate with his experience.

Well, Alan, I share your pain. I have retired several times over the last four years and unretired. Right now, I am doing what you say you wish to do eventually - a little teaching at Frederick Community College, some consulting and some volunteering. But I know it's tough to convince employers half my age that I am not a high-priced rigid over-the-hill kind of guy.

So, recently I went out to the Frederick County Business and Employment Center at 5340A Spectrum Drive, near the Francis Scott Key Mall, to see what could be done about this job dilemma I faced.

"The one word I don't want to hear all afternoon is 'unemployed,' James Steel told his mature and, well, unemployed audience.

"The word is 'restructuring.' That's why you are here today - to restructure."

Mr. Steel, who has just turned 50 himself, is a job counselor for the center. His job on a sunny afternoon was to convince the recently laid-off workers, over 55, that they do not face a dark future.

But he was confronting a clearly skeptical audience. One woman noted, "We are competing with kids just out of college."

Mr. Steel told the skeptics that the Labor Department reports employees 55 to 64 will be the fastest growing age group in the work force in the next 20 years. In fact, there are now more than 16 million workers in that group, compared to 14.5 million when the recession began in March 2001.

So, it's matter of going about the job search in the right way -- and that includes convincing employers that skills, not age, are what to look for, Mr. Steel insisted.

He reminded the job aspirant who feared younger college grads, "You've got a Ph.D. in the real world."

It was time to dispel some of the prevailing myths about hiring older workers.

Actually, many employers, particularly in the retail field, don't have to be convinced.

Wal-Mart, right down Route 85 from the job center, is one of the converted. A spokesman for the huge retailing chain says about a fifth of its 1 million workers are over 55. The chain has no age limit. Many employees are 80 or over.

As for the companies yet to be convinced, Mr. Steel handed out what he called an "older workers' primer," a head-on assault on job myths and ways to combat them.

Some employers complain that older workers just don't get the new technology.

"The fact is," the primer, says, "older people have embraced the internet and other computer technologies with enthusiasm. When they need to use a new software program, they devote time, patience and energy to learning it."

Mr. Steel says each myth needs to be combated with a "strategy."

Job seekers should dispel any employer doubts that they don't know a delete button from a numbers lock by pointing out what software they have used in past jobs - and by sending their resumes in by e-mail.

But don't older workers have more health problems?

"The fact is," says Mr. Steel, "older employees are healthier than any previous generation and may even take fewer sick days than younger employees. Actually, younger workers with small children tend to miss work when 'bugs' hit schools and day care centers."

So, the strategy is to tell employers of your near-perfect attendance record and mention that you show up for work even in the worst weather conditions.

Mr. Steel says you need a "functional" resume, too, that brings out skills that are transferable.

"In the old days, you filled out an application in the office. Now, you e-mail it, text only, so it can be scanned, making the personnel officer's job easier. Use Times New Roman type and don't put in any italics or pictures."

As an older worker, you actually have an advantage competing for certain positions.

"The older workers are reliable and trustworthy," Mr. Steel said. Stores, like Wal-Mart, use customer greeters, who have good old-fashioned manners. They don't chewed gum, for example.

Museums like older tour guides because the older clientele relates well to them. The health field is always short of workers and there is a demand for instructors to teach English as a second language, an ideal part-time job for retired teachers.

Mr. Steel told his, by now, more hopeful audience: "Burn this into you mind - networking. A lot of employers do not like to advertise."

For information on the variety of job services, from a resume writing clinic to computer learning, contact the center at 301-846-2255 or e- mail

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