Older workers struggle to regain position in workforce

HIRED support group
Some older workers laid of from their jobs find their way into support groups like one in St. Paul run by the agency HIRED, a large provider of employment and training services for those out of work.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

When Kathy Saulton lost her job in February, she was pretty nervous. She had read articles about how hard it is for older workers like her to land new jobs.

"You kind of go, 'Oh my gosh, now what?' It was traumatic," she said.

But Saulton, of St. Paul, didn't feel too old to keep working.

"I am 61. I guess it's possible I'm at the end of the professional career, but I'm not at the end of my life. And there's all sorts of things I can do."

Although younger workers bore most of the brunt of job cuts in the recession, several signs indicate that laid-off older workers who lost jobs are less likely to benefit from the economic recovery.

Their ranks at job counseling centers are swelling, and they're more likely to endure long-term unemployment.

Saulton's last job was in education. As a senior associate for Capella University, where she worked for six years, she helped assess students' prior learning experiences. Now, nine months after her layoff, she's pursuing work that's far removed from that job — and her PhD in Women's Studies — as she tries to scrape together an income.

Kathy Saulton
Kathy Saulton seals the crack between the stucco and brick to keep moisture out of a garage in Minneapolis, Minn. on Nov. 12, 2011. She's doing the work as part of her business called Honey-Do-Handywomen.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

In a bid to recreate herself, Saulton started a business called Honey-Do Handywomen. Recently, she was literally scraping bricks to help maintain the exterior of a client's garage in Minneapolis.

Saulton has long enjoyed fixing things. She once aspired to be a carpenter. Now she's starting her own business doing odd jobs, which she founds both exhilarating and terrifying.

"I've never considered or owning or running a business," she said. "I've never thought of marketing myself."

She sees self-promotion as a big part of her future.

Saulton is one of many older workers who are struggling to find stability after a layoff. Many of them wind up in support groups like the one in St. Paul run by the agency HIRED, a large provider of employment and training services for laid-off workers.

"Our group objective is to provide leads and ideas to each other in this whole job search process," group leader Mary White recently told participants.

Eight of 13 people in the group are older than 50. That matches the overall trend at the agency. About half of the 2,000 jobless workers HIRED serves are 50 or older.

Those older workers are a big segment of the agency's long-term unemployed clients. Older workers account for more than a third of the workers who are on HIRED's rolls for 18 months or longer.

They're also a growing portion of the newly unemployed, according to HIRED's project manager Ken Roberts.

"Today as companies lay off people, if they lay off 50 to 60 people, we are seeing a trend," Roberts said. "The majority of the layoffs will be the older worker."

State statistics tell the same tale. In terms of the number of people seeking jobless benefits after a layoff and those leaving unemployment, the picture for workers over 50 is worse than for those under 50.

Roberts said older workers typically believe that employers see them as too expensive to hire, given their salary histories. But he said that's not the only reason they're struggling to find work.

"We also see the fact that the skills sets that were used for the last 20 years are becoming stagnant," Roberts said.

That's a problem older workers might be able to address by seeking additional certifications or coursework. But state economist Tom Stinson said even updated training may not address all of an employer's concerns.

"Employers may see it in their best interests to hire workers who are likely to be around for 15 or 20 years, reducing their hiring problems in the future and building productivity on the job, rather than someone who is only likely to be around for five or ten years," Stinson said.

Kathy Saulton hopes that won't work against her. While she's excited about getting her handywoman business off the ground, she'd still really like to find a full-time job.

"If I were hired by a company who wanted to keep me I'd be glad to work for them," she said.

Saulton said she has no intention of retiring, but that's partly because she can't imagine how she'd afford it.

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