Over 50 and Looking for Work

Featured Audio

Dave Dickson stirs some coffee in a clear plastic mug, monogrammed with a big "D". The Solon resident is currently employed by a company that sells such personalized gift items, along with tee-shirts that feature wacky sayings, like "International Beer Drinking Team". Dickson is a warehouse worker now. He used to manage such a facility.

DAVE DICKSON: Basically, I had it all the way from receiving to pulling it, finishing it, picking it, packing it, shipping it, and loading it on the truck.

But, after the national financial meltdown of 2008, 30% of the company's staff was laid-off --- including Dave Dickson. He says he’d been through layoffs before, but when you're in your mid-50s, the news hits you harder.

DAVE DICKSON: My hope was that that would be the last time that I would have to look for a job. This would be the company that I retired from. And then that harsh reality hits you in the face - "Well, here I go again".

And Dickson has plenty of company. An Urban Institute study found that the jobless rate for people over 55 has doubled in the last five years. And a recent survey out of Rutgers University says that over half of the workers who found new jobs after being laid off during the Recession are making less money. The former protections of seniority have diminished in a time of weaker labor unions, and older job seekers are spending more time on the hunt.

Case in point: Dan Champ of Aurora.

DAN CHAMP: It's been difficult for me for the last five years. Very difficult.

He was working as an aerospace engineer when the layoff notice came. Unlike a young college grad trying to crack a tough job market, Champ also had a wife, kids in college, a home to pay for. When he went looking for new employment, he found that an impressive resume seemed to be working against him. Hiring managers told him he was "overqualified".

DAN CHAMP: That seems to be a standing terminology, these days, for people in my age group.

University of North Carolina business management expert Ben Rosen sees that term as a code word.

BEN ROSEN: Some people have said that when a manager says you're overqualified, it means is: "You probably want this job as a temporary stepping stone until you find something better, and I don't want to put up with the turnover."

At the same time, he says, some companies seem to have no problem with the temporary nature of what are known as contract employees. There can be considerable savings in hiring a seasoned worker like Dan Champ on a contract basis.

DAN CHAMP: Right now I am on contract with the company for a specified amount of time, at a specified rate, and there are no benefits.

For many job seekers – of all ages - contract work is, at least in the short term, their only option, according to Lori Long, who grooms future hiring managers in her business classes at Baldwin Wallace College. Long is also a consultant for small and start-up firms, and understands the appeal of contract workers.

LORI LONG: There are the advantages of less commitment to the worker. And the lack of the need to pay benefits is attractive. However, the downside of hiring workers as independent contractors is that they aren't necessarily as committed to the company.

Brecksville resident Lori Collins says she's all about commitment. She's been struggling in the job market for almost a year, trying to make the case that the life experience that comes with being over fifty makes her a valuable employee.

LORI COLLINS: I'm not one to jump from job to job to job. I like to get in, settle down, know everything there is to know about the position, and I'm happy there. So, what's with "overqualified"? They don't realize that I'd be an asset to them.

Management expert Ben Rosen thinks that's the argument the older worker has to make. How can your life skills add value to the organization today? Lori Collins says problem-solving is something that comes naturally to many post-50 workers. For instance, this past year, she took over the local high school sports concession stand and turned it around.

LORI COLLINS: I re-did the menu, I listened to people as to what they thought would be good sellers. We tried wings. I did pulled pork which was an absolute success. The year before, they made $20,000, and this year, I made $41,000.

She just wishes hiring managers understood her passion to work.

LORI COLLINS: I'm still thinking about soup and chili, but didn't get to that yet.

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