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Fix, Don't Scrap, This Job-Training Program for Older Adults

Trump's budget would end SCSEP, which trains low-income, 55+ unemployed people

By Chris Farrell

Welcome to what the Trump Administration is calling “Workforce Development Week” — when the White House will announce, among other things, its plans to streamline the 43 federal job-training programs. One thing we already know: the administration wants to eliminate the U.S. Department of Labor’s job-training program for low-income or unemployed people age 55 and older, known as the Senior Community Service Employment Program or SCSEP.

The 52-year-old program provides job training and temporary part-time subsidized employment for roughly 65,000 older workers annually at over 2,000 nonprofits and government agencies with a goal of finding permanent, full-time, unsubsidized jobs. The program is operated through 18 national organizations such as Senior Service America and AARP.

How the SCSEP Job-Training Program Works

Many SCSEP participants (maximum annual income to qualify: $15,075) have spotty employment histories; some had careers that tanked after a job loss, health problems and other setbacks. They could use assistance to get back to work. SCSEP participants are assigned a part-time job, usually with a community-based organization. While in the program, they’re paid the federal, state or local minimum wage — whichever is highest — and can stay with SCSEP for up to four years.

The reason the administration wants to ax this anti-poverty program? The president’s Fiscal 2018 budget says: “SCSEP is ineffective in its goal of transitioning seniors into unsubsidized employment.” The administration and other SCSEP critics consider the program ineffective because about one-third of participants don’t finish it and, of those who do, only about half land full-time jobs.

From SCSEP Training to New Jobs

Macey Wheeler, program director for the SCSEP program run by East Side Neighborhood Services in Minneapolis, sees things differently. Speaking of its participants, she says: “It’s so important that we can provide them with opportunities. They want and need to work.” She’s talking about people like Vanessa Willis, 60, and Steven Dehning, 57.

Willis worked at many jobs — including at the state Department of Corrections and as a substitute teacher — before getting laid off in 2012. She tried to find work, but her deteriorating health didn’t allow it. (She has had a hip replacement, back surgeries and heart ailments.) Two years later, while working a day a week as a Heritage Park Service Center receptionist and in need of a full-time position, she signed up for East Side’s SCSEP program. Willis’ training there boosted her computer, resumé writing and job-search skills and led to a part-time receptionist and data-entry job at a conflict resolution center. She also took a conflict resolution course, which unexpectedly opened a new chapter for her.

Returning to substitute teaching at Columbia Heights High School two days a week and supervising students who were being disciplined, she used insights gained from her conflict-resolution training to engage them. The principal was impressed and ultimately hired Willis as a full-time specialist with the school’s dropout-prevention program. “Isn’t that wonderful?” says Willis. “I wake up every morning looking forward to my work. The training I got prepared me for the job I’m doing.”

Dehning had been unemployed for more than a year after heart and brain surgery. The bills were piling up. He had thoughts of suicide. He couldn’t get anyone to hire him. Dehning enrolled at East Side in 2015, securing a part-time gig with its family violence intervention program and taking computer and office skill classes. In 2016, he got a job as a case management assistant with the county’s children’s disability unit. “The people at East Side gave me the motivation and the encouragement to move forward,” he says.

Rough Job Market for Low-Income, Unemployed, Older Workers

It’s helpful to put the SCSEP job-training program in context. Today’s job market is inhospitable to lower-income, long-term unemployed older workers. The jobless rate of workers 55+ earning less than $20,000 annually is three times higher than for older workers in general. And older workers typically take twice as long to find jobs as their younger peers. In addition, the age discrimination reported by many older workers in surveys is, sadly, real and commonplace.

“I am often amazed that we don’t fundamentally value older workers,” says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. “Being unemployed and low-income is isolating. We know that social connections are critical for vibrant well-bring.”

Susan McCauley, chief performance officer at East Side, says: “Older adults too easily become invisible, yet we know that they have more to give back.” Adds Paul Magnus, vice president for workforce development at Mature Services in Akron, Ohio, which runs a SCSEP program: ”Yes, older workers can still learn. Maybe they take it in differently. But they have had to learn new things all their life.”

Job-Training Need vs. Budget Reality

The need and desire for the kind of training SCSEP offers, however, far outstrips the available opportunities.

The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University has estimated that nine million people age 55 to 74 were eligible for SCSEP. But remember, only about 65,000 low-income older Americans participate in it annually — that’s because the program only gets around $434 million of funding currently.

How to Improve SCSEP


As someone who studies and frequently writes about older workers, I believe the Trump administration should reverse its plans to scrap SCSEP, and instead find ways to improve the program.

Some agencies working with SCSEP are already trying. For instance, East Side is looking into developing relations with private-sector employers to hire its participants part-time.

In fact, focusing more on the desirability of part-time employment is a smart  potential avenue for SCSEP. That’s the conclusion drawn from a survey by Pat Elmer, Mary Branagan and Thomas Saylor — CEO, deputy project director and chief operating officer, respectively at Vermont Associates for Training and Development — along with Ernest Gonzales, a professor at the Boston University School of Social Work who I just heard speak at Columbia University's Age Boom Academy program.

The researchers surveyed 666 SCSEP applicants at Vermont Associates for a year and found that 43 percent of applicants preferred part-time work; 36 percent wanted full-time work. The preference for part-time work rose among the older groups, such as those in their early 70s.

The researchers learned that the demands of informal caregiving, physical limitations and work-life balance become more important with the passage of time.

From JFK to Ivanka Trump

SCSEP started after President Kennedy in 1963 sent this message to Congress: “Denial of employment opportunity to older persons is a personal tragedy. No economy can reach its maximum productivity while failing to use the skills, talents, and experience of willing workers. Rules of employment that are based on the calendar rather than upon ability are not good rules, nor are they realistic.”

Fast-forward to Ivanka Trump’s briefing to reporters last week, when she said: “The reality is that there are still Americans seeking employment despite low unemployment rates, and companies are struggling to fill vacancies for positions that require varied levels of skills and training. So the Trump administration is committed to working very close to close the skills gap.”

To my mind, the administration ought to heed the petition just signed by 23 Democratic Senators, calling for “robust” funding for SCSEP. They say the program “strengthens communities through the extensive service hours performed by SCSEP participants” and note that SCSEP “exceeded its performance goals” in its most recent year.

Agreeing to improve this program, rather than junking it, would be an excellent way to celebrate Workforce Development Week.

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Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author of the books "Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life" and "Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community and the Good Life." Read More
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