Fewer jobs for older workers in Northern SJ Valley, nation

August 5, 2009 

When it comes to finding a new job, they always say experience is key.

But across the country and throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley, some workers are finding that there could be such a thing as too much experience.

With the economy still stalled and unemployment at near-record highs, older workers are having a harder and harder time finding jobs.

The jobless rate for those 55 and older rose to 7 percent in June, the highest for that age group in records dating to 1948.

The Labor Department said unemployed workers 55 or older were jobless an average of nearly 30 weeks, compared with about 21 weeks for those younger than 55. That gap has widened during the recession: In 2006, it averaged six weeks.

The Stanislaus County Alliance Worknet reported a 15 percent increase in workers age 55 and older enrolling for their services during the past fiscal year.

Fifty-four-year-old Modesto resident Jeff Dugan doesn't need to see the numbers; he is living them. The part-time pest inspector has been looking for full-time work for more than a year.

What he has found in the job market has been brutal.

"Right now, an employer has their choice," he said. "Competition is so tough. I've been on interviews. The last time, I saw my opponent. He was 15 years younger and to my knowledge had the same experience. He got the job."

James Madden, 54, of Modesto has encountered the same thing.

"I keep running into rock walls," said Madden, who has been unemployed since November. "In all that time, I've had only two interviews."

Part of Madden's problem is his employment history.

"I had worked myself up into management," Madden said. He used to earn $62,000 a year, plus bonuses, commuting to Livermore. "Now it's ridiculous trying to find any management job. ... I've even looked at jobs that pay $14 an hour, but I can't even get them."

Employers' reluctance to hire older workers is often multifold, said AARP of California spokeswoman Christina Clem.

"The reality is employers think, 'You're older, how long are you going to work for us? How long have you been using that computer and how comfortable are you with it? How much will they want to be paid?' " Clem said. "It is not supposed to be that way, you are supposed to be able to look at two résumés blindly, but first impressions are important things."

Complaints of age bias to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jumped 29 percent to 24,852 in the year that ended in September, the most recent 12-month period for which figures are available.

That's the highest total on record dating back 16 years. The number of such complaints has continued at a high pace this year, the EEOC said.

In Stanislaus County, workers young and old face a 16.6 percent unemployment rate. Older workers often are disproportionately affected by closures of longtime businesses, such as the recent shutdowns of the Neenah Paper plant in Ripon and the ammunition plant in Riverbank.

In other cases, retired workers have had to look for work again to supplement their income because of shrinking 401(k) and retirement plans.

Be realistic

Alliance Worknet work force consultant Vita Perez said she hears a lot of anxiety from older clients who come in looking for work. She said they should be clear about what they want and accentuate their positives.

"No one has a lot to choose from anymore," Perez said. "People have to be realistic. (Older workers) always tell me they'll do 'anything.' And I say, 'You will not do anything. How about this warehouse job unloading freight?' You have to be realistic about both what you want and what you can do."

But she said older workers can bring a lot to the workplace.

"They don't have the distractions of life, most of them are done raising families. Their focus will be more on the work," she said. "They are much more reliable, dependable, loyal. Most older workers will have a common-sense attitude."

The Alliance Worknet has two programs for older job seekers, one through the AARP and the other with the Senior Community Service Employment Program. The services help with things such as basic résumé writing.

Perez's fellow Alliance Worknet work force consultant Terri Bran-ham said it is essential that older workers need to employ the latest job search techniques.

"What I am running into is a lack of basic computer skills," Branham said. "They are competing with younger workers and a younger generation who is more technology- savvy. They need to increase their search outside of what they are used to."

Answer selectively

Branham said once older workers find positions they would like to apply for, they should be equally savvy in what they put on their applications.

Those with long work histories should highlight only the past 10 years and leave dates off their education history.

"Don't focus on dates that show your age," Branham said. "Focus on your skills. Show them what you have to offer, not your age. Don't give the employer the opportunity to do the math."

Sacramento AARP spokeswoman Clem said even the smallest details could make a difference, from clothing to hairstyles. She has heard reports that some job seekers were getting Botox to look younger.

"Maybe now would be a good time to buy stock in L'Oreal," Clem joked. "But especially where you are working with the public, you need to come across as professional and polished."

Still, older workers including Du-gan said instead of camouflaging his age, he wants to prove his abilities.

"I am who I am," he said. "They are going to find out sooner or later if I get interviewed. But you know there are people older than me and people younger than me out of work. You've just got to want it."

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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