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The older unemployed face a changed job market

Job seekers line up at the U.S. Census

Job seekers line up at the U.S. Census Bureau table during a job fair late this past year at the Copiague Memorial Library. (Nov. 17, 2009) Credit: John Dunn

Copiague resident Barbara Hass has been looking for work since May, when the retailer Fortunoff closed its doors and she lost her job as a sales associate there.

So far, Hass, 56, hasn't gotten any nibbles.

"I don't get any answers from any resumés I send," said Hass, who attended a Suffolk County job fair at the Copiague Memorial Library late last year. "I don't know if it's because of the market or my age."

Increasing numbers of older workers are wrestling with that uncertainty as they maneuver the worst job market in decades.

The market has been particularly bruising for older workers. For most of 2009, the unemployment rate for those 55 and older hovered in the 6 to 7 percent range, the highest for that age group since 1949, according to AARP. The jobless rate for those 55 and older declined in December, to 5.8 percent.

But that lower figure may be no cause for celebration. Some economists believe unemployment rates have dropped, even as companies continue to cut jobs, because some workers have become discouraged and have stop looking for work.

Those workers aren't counted in unemployment statistics. The number of "discouraged workers" jumped to 929,000 nationwide in December, from 642,000 a year ago, according to federal data. The numbers aren't broken out by age. 

Barriers to employment
Sadly, amid widespread joblessness, the obstacles to older workers' re-employment have never been greater. They face stiff competition, rising bias and a dramatically different job market, experts say.

After two years of monthly job losses, the number of unemployed U.S. workers has doubled, to 15.3 million, according to federal data. The ratio of unemployed workers to job openings (2.4 million) is 6.4-to-1, according to November figures released this week.

Linda Joyner, 43, of Bay Shore, knows how difficult it is to find work. "This recession isn't funny," said Joyner, a computer help-desk worker who has been jobless since September and has gone to several job fairs since then. "They tell me they're interested, but they're not hiring right now because of the recession."

Downsizing cost Nicholas Linsalata, 61, of Copiague, his job as a purchasing agent for an electronics-component company at the end of September.

Though he has faced layoffs before, "I always got something right away," he said. But not this time. He describes the current market as "daunting."

Concerns over age bias in today's volatile job market prompted the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to convene a hearing that heard testimony from workers and other experts about how massive layoffs during the recession have disproportionately affected employees over 40.

Some employers hold damaging misconceptions about older workers, said Diane Pfadenhauer, president of Employment Practices Advisors, a Northport human-resources consulting firm.

"There is perception that older workers are slower, not as fast on their feet and not savvy with technology, all of which is not true," she said. Younger workers are more inclined to text and use smart phones than older workers, she said. However, "This is not something that is necessarily important in the workplace."

Those misguided views cause employers to overlook the invaluable intangibles that older workers offer, Pfadenhauer said. "Their work ethic and stability most likely far outweigh any limitation that may be perceived," she said.

These are different times
Culture shock is another issue jobless boomers and other older workers face if they've been out of the job market for a while.

"Not only do they find themselves unemployed, but they also find themselves in a very different job market," with requests to post their resumés online and deal with some interviewers who are generations younger, said Deborah Russell, AARP's director of workforce issues.

Hass, the former Fortunoff employee, finds the emphasis on technology frustrating.

"I find it annoying because everything is done on the computer," she said. "There's no person- to-person.  . . . It's a sterile process."

But she realizes how important computer skills are and has enrolled in a computer course at the local high school, where she's learned to use Microsoft Office.

At the Copiague library, a lot of older people have signed up for computer classes, said Lisa Taylor, a reference librarian and adult program coordinator.

For many older job seekers, technology challenges start with the basics. One common question, she said, is "How do I cut and paste?"

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