Solving the Struggle of Older Workers

Once upon a time, like clockwork, workers in their late 50s and early 60s could begin looking forward to their golden years of retirement. Not anymore. New numbers published by the U.S Department of Labor confirm a trend that has long been visible in retail stores, factories, restaurants and offices everywhere: older workers are holding onto their jobs well beyond what was once considered retirement age, and often not by choice.

Older workers are usually defined as those 55 years old and above. Since 2006, the new Labor data shows record numbers of workers 65 and older remaining in the workplace as Baby Boomers (and in some cases their parents, as well) are forced to postpone retirement. For most it is an economic necessity, as the fallout from the Great Recession has lowered the value of retirement accounts and triggered millions of homeforeclosures, putting many mature workers and their families in need of new income.

While many older adults are hanging on to their jobs as long as possible, many more have been laid off during this recession and encounter great difficulty returning to work. For job-seekers ages 55 to 65 the job market has become increasingly unkind, leaving them to struggle. According to the Government Accounting Office, among workers who lost their jobs between 2007 and 2009, just under a third of those ages 55 to 64 had found full-time jobs by January 2010, compared with 41 percent of those ages 25 to 54. This week's announcement that overall unemployment has ticked up to 8.2 percent is bound to bring even more pain.

In San Diego County, California, the unemployment rate among 55 to 65-year-olds has risen faster than that of any other group, except ages 24 and younger, and was 10.3 percent in 2010. Cost of living expenses there are also among the fastest rising in the nation, creating a double whammy. Older adults who lose a job or cannot find one can wind up economically stranded: they are too young to receive Medicare and too young to receive Social Security, and they are more likely to exhaust unemployment benefits.

Increasingly, this is a large share of the population. People over age 55 comprise nearly 23 percent of the population of San Diego County, and large percentages of them experience some kind of financial hardship. 42 percent of all residents age 65 and older (including 75 percent of Latinos and 63 percent of African-Americans) do not have income adequate to cover their most basic expenses. Traditional job training and job placement agenciescommonly overlook mature workers and instead focus on younger candidates. This creates a particularly unfortunate set of circumstances because mature workers bring skills to the workplace that younger workers are often still developing: reliability, experience, good judgment, wisdom and proven productivity.

Yet despite all this data, many employers surprisingly report that they are unable to find the workers they need. Is there a way to meet the needs of both employers and mature workers? There is. Research shows that "sector-based" initiatives, connecting workers with customized training to meet specific job needs in specific industries, has not only proven effective in putting people to work but also in raising the earnings of low-income people.But until now the sector approach has not been widely used to assist older adults.

In a research collaboration with the National Council on Aging and the Mature Workers Coalition, the Insight Center in Oakland, California has developed the basis for a mature worker project using the sector approach. Insight's research shows that the healthcare sector in San Diego County is expected to grow by seven percent, adding 10,000 jobs in the next three years. Some of these jobs will pay as much as $17 per hour and do not require extensive training. Interviews with health care providers found many matches between the needs of the industry -- patience and reliability -- with the skills possessed by many mature workers.

Insight's model proposing solutions to helping San Diego solve this problem can be read in a report published in March entitled Thrive! Helping Older San Diegans Get Good Jobs through an Industry Sector Approach. Putting older San Diegans back to work can help families, employers and industries get back to the productivity American communities need to grow and remain healthy. And the workforce can benefit from the unique skills and rich experience that mature workers can bring, if they are just given a chance.