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Older workers face long, frustrating job search

The job hunt has been particularly difficult for workers 55 and older. Experts say 29 percent of unemployed people 55 or older had been out of work for a year or more.
Image: Ron Pierson
Ron Pierson, 55, of Vernon Hills, Ill., has been in the restaurant service industry for 30 years. He  spends his days searching job listing sites for any employment related to food service.Nathan Weber / for

After more than three decades in the restaurant and hotel industry, Ron Pierson didn’t think he’d have trouble getting a job when he found himself without work in February 2008.

But in the more than two years since he lost his job, Pierson, 55, has applied for hundreds of positions, ranging from management all the way down to  busboy openings he hopes will give him a foot in the door.

He’s had a few interviews but no job offers. While he believes the economy has played the largest role in his inability to land a job, he also suspects that his years of experience may be hurting his prospects.

“I feel that the employers were willing to hire someone basically half my age,” he said.

The recession has left millions of Americans without work, and skittishness about hiring again has made it extremely difficult for laid-off workers to find new jobs. Nearly 3.5 million Americans, or 23 percent of the total unemployed, had been jobless for a year or more as of December 2009, according to a Pew Economic Policy Group report.

A report due Friday is expected to show a surge of hiring in May, boosted by temporary Census jobs. But the overall unemployment rate is unlikely to move much from the current 9.9 percent.

For workers 55 and older, the rate was 7 percent as of April — more than double the rate in December 2007, when the recession began.

The Pew report found that 29 percent of unemployed people 55 or older had been out of work for a year or more, compared with 18 percent of unemployed people between the ages of 20 and 24.

The average duration of unemployment for jobseekers ages 55 and over was 42.1 weeks in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is more than six weeks longer than the national average.

And the job hunt has been particularly difficult for workers 55 and older in the current recession. Younger workers statistically are more likely to lose their jobs, but once unemployed, older workers are much more likely to stay unemployed longer.

Higher salaries, other factors
Experts say there are a number of reasons that older people may have a harder time finding work.

Older workers may be more experienced but less knowledgeable in the latest trends or technology skills. Employers also may be worried about spending time and money investing in workers who might leave for a better position or simply retire sooner than younger workers. A worker who is 55 might command a higher salary than someone a decade or two younger but not have much more experience in pertinent areas.

The current economy, in which hundreds of candidates apply for any job opening, also is giving employers the luxury of being extremely picky.

“It’s a buyer’s market,” said Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist with the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s not a good strong, labor market for workers. They don’t have the upper hand.”

Such problems aren’t new but have been made worse by the recession. Historically, research has shown that those who have the most trouble finding new work are older, less educated and male, said Harry Holzer, a professor in the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University.

“The recession is kind of an overlay that makes everything harder for everyone,” Holzer said.

For many older workers, the shock of being jobless after a lifetime of working can be hard to comprehend.

‘I’ll flip burgers at McDonald’s’
Pierson had spent his career working long hours at resorts and restaurants in and around Lake Geneva, Wis., hopping easily from one job to the next.

He figured he could easily parlay that experience into a similar job when he moved to the Chicago area in 2008 after getting married to his longtime girlfriend, who owned a home and had a job in the area.

Instead, he arrived just as the recession was beginning to take a serious toll on the hospitality industry. In addition to restaurant and hotel jobs, Pierson has applied for positions such as driving a forklift and stocking shelves overnight at a big-box retailer.

“I’ll flip burgers at McDonald’s if they would just hire me,” he said.

Pierson said he often has the feeling that employers think he is overqualified, or will bolt as soon a better job comes along, because of his age and experience. Although he doesn’t think it’s fair, having been a hiring manager in the past he can understand.

Still, he said it’s frustrating after a lifetime of work to find himself sitting at home with nothing but four dogs, a cat and daytime television for company.

“I would be willing to take a step backwards, if necessary, to show them my abilities,” he said.

Experts say that a lengthy layoff can, frustratingly, make it even harder to find a job. Scott Greenberger, a senior officer with the Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative, calls it “unemployment scarring.”

“If you have a gap in your resume, potential employers begin to wonder, ‘Why is it so long?’” Greenberger said.

A big resume gap also makes it less likely that a person will find a job as good as the one they lost, Greenberger said.

“People who are out of for a long time typically, when they do find work, (it’s) at a lower wage,” he said.

There are other factors that may work specifically against older workers.

John Silvia, chief economist with Wells Fargo, said workers 55 and over came of age at a time when many jobs offered a clear path to a middle-class life even without a college education. Now those jobs in areas such as manufacturing are fast disappearing.

“(People think) some people who are unemployed are just lazy,” he said. “The bigger problem is the skills don’t match.”

Higher costs, less mobility
Silvia said older workers also are more likely to own a home or have family commitments that make it difficult to relocate for a job. The housing bust has added to those problems, with many homeowners owing more on their house than they could sell it for.

An employer looking at the cost of moving a worker with a family and a home, compared to a young person without those commitments, may favor the younger worker, Silvia noted. That younger worker may also agree to work for a lower salary.

For Pierson, the long period of unemployment has taken an emotional and financial toll.

Pierson’s wife’s steady job has allowed the couple to keep up on the mortgage at their home in Vernon Hills, Ill., and have food on the table. Still, Pierson has racked up more than $20,000 in credit card debt and worries that he may have to file for bankruptcy.

A drop in his credit score would only add to his job search woes.

Last holiday season, Pierson was able to land a temporary job as a driver’s helper for UPS. The job actually paid less than he was making collecting unemployment, and physically he said it was more suited to someone decades younger. But it did offer him a brief reprieve from the doldrums of being unemployed, and for that he was thankful.

“I don’t need work only from a financial standpoint,” he said. “I need it mentally and physically, in that order. I need a challenge. I need to excel. I need to be proud of myself again.”