Older Job Seekers: You're Hired (For Less)

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By Richard Eisenberg

The AARP Public Policy Institute just released a survey of 2,492 people ages 45 to 70 who'd been unemployed at some point during the past five years. Its chief finding: Many are now back at work, but about half of them (48 percent) are earning less than they did in their former jobs.

"A lot of them are in their pre-retirement years, when their earnings are supposed to be the highest in their lives," Lori Trawinski, Director of Banking and Finance at the AARP Public Policy Institute and one of the report's authors, said at the American Society on Aging's annual conference I attended in Chicago last week.And AARP found that the pay news is even worse for the long-term unemployed (out of work for six months are longer) who got hired: 59 percent of them have jobs with lower annual earnings than before, according to The Long Road Back: Struggling to Find Work After Unemployment.

"They're also more likely to be working part-time" than the others who'd lost jobs, Trawinski told me.

On the flip side, 29 percent of the unemployed who found jobs (and 25 percent of the long-term unemployed who did) are earning more than they did previously. "That was a surprise," says Trawinski.

The sometimes higher pay was just one of many surprises in the report, many not as pleasant.

For one thing, half of the older workers who were unemployed in the last five years are still jobless - they're either unemployed or have dropped out of the labor force, i.e. given up. About 45 percent of job seekers 55 and older - and 73 percent of the unemployed in AARP's survey - have been trying to find work for six months or longer. As Trawinski said at the conference: "It's much more difficult for older unemployed people to get rehired than younger ones."

For another thing, many who have been rehired are in new occupations, generally not by choice.

Trawinski told me she was surprised that a full 53 percent of the reemployed changed occupations. But in most cases, the report says, "the change was probably necessary to find a job," although some of the transitions "may have been because they wanted to find work that was more personally rewarding and interesting."

And 12 percent of those who'd been unemployed said age discrimination had a "great effect" on their ability to get hired. "It was, by far, the most prevalent type of discrimination that they said affected them," says Trawinski. The second most prevalent: discrimination against the unemployed.

One bright note from the survey: 49 percent who are now employed said their working conditions are better than in their previous job. AARP defined working conditions as: "the number of hours you work, your time off or the shift you work."

The AARP study also asked the reemployed workers which steps they took were the most effective. The results speak to the power of networking over perusing job listings.

The most effective steps in descending order:
  • Reaching out to a network of contacts
  • Asking relatives and friends about jobs
  • Contacting employers directly
  • Using a headhunter
  • Consulting professional associations

Interestingly, "checked online job boards" and "used online social networks" didn't make The Top 5.

Lately, many career experts I've interviewed have talked up the importance of using social networks to find jobs. But only 13 percent of the reemployed said doing so was "very effective" (another 32 percent called it "somewhat effective").

Trawinski thinks those percentages were fairly low because social networks are most useful for professional and management positions and the survey respondents were looking for all manner of jobs.

I asked Trawinski, who's Project Director of AARP's Future of Work@50+ Initiative, for her advice to older unemployed job seekers based on the report's findings. She offered four tips:

1. Don't delay starting to look for work after you lose your job. Those who are still unemployed were much more likely than the reemployed to have waited three months or longer before beginning their job search.

"The most popular answer for why people took time off before starting to look for work was that 'they need a break,'" says Trawinski. But postponing the search for three months or longer worked against them.

2. Be aggressive in your job search. Network as much as you can as well as keeping an eye out for openings, says Trawinski. "The people who were aggressive were more likely to be reemployed," she notes.

3. Volunteer while you're out of work. By putting your volunteering on your resumé, you won't show a blank period of unemployment. "To the extent that you can be out in the world utilizing your skills, it's a helpful tactic," says Trawinski.

4. Before taking classes or training for new skills to help you find work, find out whether there are actually local jobs needing those skills. In the AARP survey, of the 31 percent who participated in training or education programs in the past five years, more said doing so "did not help at all" than those who said it "helped a great deal." Trawinski says "this could be pointing to a mismatch" between the training they received and current job openings.

Some community colleges are plugged in to the local job market and their department staff can tell you which skills the employers are looking for. In certain cases, the schools partner with AARP and local workforce agencies and employers to do this; you can find those community colleges in the Back to Work 50+ part of AARP's site.
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