Working in a gray area
Switching careers later in life presents challenges, but you've got company
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Whether you're downsized or disgruntled, making a career shift in your 40s and 50s means you'll have to tackle the stigma of being an "older worker" head on.
Older workers have born the brunt of the downsizing trend of the 1990s, making up the bulk of the middle management ranks to which firms looked first when cutting positions.
Bouncing back hasn't been easy. According to a 1996 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 79 percent of workers between the ages of 25 and 54 were able to find work after losing their jobs. Only 52 percent of workers 55 or older found their way back into the workforce.
Even those older workers who did find employment had little cause for celebration. Approximately 73 percent of mature workers who made a change in jobs found themselves earning less than at their previous jobs.
Several factors are turning around this bleak picture. First, baby boomers are getting gray and coming your way. Over the next 10 years, the number of workers aged 45 to 54 will grow by more than 30 percent. Their large numbers could do much to lessen the stigma of being an older worker.
Additionally, an extremely tight labor market has led employers to take a second look at older workers they may once have shunned. In 1997, the unemployment rate for workers aged 55 to 64 fell from 3.3 percent to 3.1 percent.
Despite signs of an improved work environment, older workers looking to make a change find themselves in a difficult situation, said Sara Rix, senior policy analyst at the American Association of Retired Persons.
"Mid-life and older workers are less likely to be voluntary job changers," she said. "They're more settled and have benefits that are dependent on the jobs they hold."
Age and wisdom
The first order of business if you're hunting for a job is to use facts to fight some of the age biases that exist.
Many employers may believe if a worker is over 40 they're somehow close to retirement age when, in fact, they've probably got more than 20 years of working life ahead of them.
Employers also operate under the myth which says younger workers will build their careers with the company and stay longer, said Lawrence Einhorn, marketing and communications director for Forty Plus of Northern California, a non-profit organization devoted to helping older workers.
"If you look at the facts, most employees don't last more than four to five years before they move on," he said.
Einhorn also said workers in this age group usually have their lives much more settled, with grown children and paid mortgages. These are all factors that can be pointed out to prospective employers who have been seeing a revolving door of younger workers.
Preparing a resume can be the most challenging part for older workers. Many companies' human resources departments act as goalies, knocking aside the resume of anybody over 30.
You don't necessarily need to lie to make it past HR, said Charlene Walker, partner at Women's Focus, a Tustin, Calif.-based career transition counseling service. However, you do need to practice a little selective truth.
"I wouldn't go back more than 10 to 15 years on your resume," said Walker.
"You also don't necessarily have to put the months or dates of your employment on the document. If they want additional experience, you can elaborate."
Workers in this age group may have to battle outside pressures but they create some problems of their own, she explained.
"Sometimes they act as if they're ready to crawl into the crypt. They don't have an enthusiastic manner. Energy is crucial. You have to appear that you're interested in this job."
A complete and objective assessment can be a great help to older workers, some of whom may not have interviewed for a job in many years.
Go through your interview with a friend or counselor who will give you feedback on everything from your speaking manner to your clothes. If possible, this person should be somebody younger who may give you a different perspective.
That's not to say you need to try acting as if you're 25 years old again. But you can do simple things that will show a future employer time hasn't left you behind.
Many of these things are simple. Eliminate the word "old" from your vocabulary and learn some of the latest terminology in whatever job you're pursuing. Having an e-mail address shows you're capable of embracing change as it comes.
Increasing the odds
Just because it's tough for older workers doesn't mean you can't increase your chances for being able to change your career.
This process can start even before you've made the switch. Any training seminars or additional educational resources your current company provides should be pursued.
Walker said older workers often have a fear they can't keep up with technological change. "They feel disconnected with the rest of the workforce," she said.
But since many jobs now require the use of a computer in one way or another, these workers can't afford to miss out. Learning about computers doesn't necessarily require you to become a programmer. Instead it can be as simple as taking a class in word processing or using an Internet browser to get around on the Web.
Once you've attained some basic skills, you'll want to consider the employers that are more open to hiring older workers, said Walker.
"The non-profit sector values work experience from the private sector. They realize older workers are more motivated by giving something back to their communities."
She also advocated focusing on smaller and mid-sized firms. "These companies are looking for any experience they can get to help them grow, as opposed to the Fortune 500 companies."
Forty Plus' Einhorn said the financial industry has placed a value on the mature worker. Investment planning in particular benefits from having workers who are a little gray around the temples.
"If you're going to invest in a mutual fund, they'll automatically bring more respect. What is a 32 year-old going to tell a 48 year-old about moving around asset allocations?"
Sales divisions have also embraced older workers, although not in their high pressure sales areas. Rather, sales positions where customer service is key often benefit from having more mature faces.
In an interesting bit of irony, the woes of the older worker have created jobs for some of those who have been displaced, said Einhorn.
"One of the areas that is growing is career counseling itself," he said. "Some of these people haven't been able to get back into the workforce in other ways and have pursued this instead."
-- by staff writer Randall J. Schultz