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What the Older, Long-Term Unemployed Need

Expert views at a Town Hall on re-skilling the mid-career workforce

By Richard Eisenberg

(Editor's Note: This story is part of a partnership between Chasing the Dream and Next Avenue.)

Credit: Adobe Stock

Job openings are at a record high and the unemployment rate has edged down to 4.3 percent, a 16-year low. But it’s a very different story for older unemployed Americans, especially ones out of work for over six months — the long-term unemployed.

A stunning 33 percent of job seekers ages 55 and older are long-term unemployed, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute. The average length of unemployment for the roughly 1.2 million people 55+ who are out of work: seven to nine months. “It’s emotionally devastating for them,” said Carl Van Horn, director of Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, at a Town Hall his center and the nonprofit WorkingNation held Tuesday in New Brunswick, N.J. The host: PBS NewsHour Weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan.

The Fight Faced By the Long-Term Unemployed

And, recent studies have shown, the longer you’re out of work — especially if you’re older and out of work — the harder it becomes to get a job offer.

The job-finding rate declines by roughly 50 percent within eight months of unemployment, according to a 2016 paper by economists Gregor Jarosch of Stanford University and Laura Pilossoph of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “Unemployment duration has a strongly negative effect on the likelihood of subsequent employment,” wrote researchers from the University of Maryland and the U.S. Census Bureau in another 2016 paper.

“Once upon a time, you could take that first job and it would lead to the next job and the job after that,” said Town Hall panelist John Colborn, chief operating officer at the nonprofit JEVS Human Services, of Philadelphia. “The notion of a career ladder offered some hope of getting back into the labor market. The rungs of the ladder are getting harder and harder to find and some of them are broken.”

In inner cities, said Kimberly McClain, CEO of The Newark Alliance, “there’s an extra layer beyond being older and out of work. There are issues of race and poverty and being defined by your ZIP code. There’s an incredible sense of urgency.”

Innovative Programs That Help

Fortunately, some innovative local, hands-on programs are making strides getting some older unemployed people back on their feet and back at work. I heard about three at the Town Hall —Heldrich’s New Start Career Network for unemployed New Jerseyans over 45, Colborn’s JEVS Human Services and the Newark 2020 initiative.

Joe Konopka, 51, is living proof. Laid off from his job as a dean in 2016, Konopka struggled to find work. At the time, Konopka — who has an MBA, a master’s and a Ph.D. — had a son in college and a daughter in high school; his wife, Ann, has Parkinson’s. In a WorkingNation mini-documentary shown at the Town Hall, Konopka poignantly said that after losing a job in midlife, “within 10 minutes, your identity is stripped.” It took him about two months to get over the shock.

New Start Career Network coach Mallory Jones (a volunteer, like the program’s other coaches) helped Konopka find his footing after he began getting job interviews. It was about “being a sounding board and listening to the things Joe was saying and his frustrations,” Jones said. “I asked him to map out all the organizations he had interviewed with, what he liked about each and the great things about each interview. Then, we could move forward to find an employer that could offer those things.”

Today, Konopka is senior aide to the president at Ocean County College. “Mallory helped me get up every day and make sure I was immersed in my job search,” he said. His advice to other older long-term unemployed people: “Make it your job to find a job.”

'Knitting Things Together'

McClain said at the Town Hall that helping the older, long-term unemployed find jobs “is the responsibility of everyone who touches the workforce system.” The goal, she added, is “to take everyone connected — training providers, employers, faith-based nonprofits and others — and create career pathways.”

Colborn agreed. “It takes that kind of work to knit all these things together.” Added Jane Oates, a member of WorkingNation’s executive committee and the former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor: “The solutions are local.”

JEVS Human Services (JEVS is short for Jewish Vocational Services) does its part by adhering to the Jewish principle of Tzedakah, which means “do what is right and just.” Its Career Solutions for 55+ program, like New Start Career Network, provides one-on-one employment assistance for older job seekers. “We help people take stock of what they’ve gained in their years of experience, retune themselves and repackage themselves for employers to prepare for a new job search,” said Colborn.

Staying Positive

The retuning is as much psychological as anything.

Maria Heidkamp, director of the New Start Career Network, said her program helps older people (average age: 56) who are out of work “stay positive.” It also provides instruction on using social media, understanding the hidden labor market (job openings that aren’t posted) and interviewing with younger hiring managers, as well as providing in-person and virtual coaching by trained volunteers.

Colborn noted: “A big part of our identity is our work, and when you take that work away from people, they suffer from a lack of identity. They wonder: ‘Where am I?’ We see a lot of shame from people coming to us for our services.”

The 30 JEVS job development team members help prospects get hired by “knocking on [employers’] doors every day,” said Colborn. “They say: ‘Have I got a candidate for you! She’s who you’re looking for and let me tell you why.”

Newark 2020, an initiative launched in April by Newark mayor Ras Baraka, is a coalition of organizations, employers and colleges, including The Newark Alliance, Rutgers, Prudential and RWJ Barnabas Health. Its goal: finding full-time employment at a living wage for Newark’s 2,020 residents by 2020. “We tell employers why it makes business sense” to hire unemployed workers, said McClain. “It’s not about feeling sorry for job seekers.”

The Newark 2020 folks meet regularly with human resources professionals in the city. “We talk less about the job candidates having gaps in their work experience and more about: Are they capable of doing the job?” said McLain.


Filling a Work Gap

If you are over 50, unemployed and have a work gap right now, the Town Hall speakers said, fill it by volunteering, getting an internship, doing project work, job-shadowing someone in a field you want to be in or taking a class to re-skill. These kind of things “make a candidate a lot more attractive,” said Colborn. Be sure to note them in your cover letter and resumé.

Town Hall panelist Amanda Mullan, senior vice president and chief human resources officer of the New Jersey Resources Corp. (a utility company based in Wall, N.J.), said that when her company is interviewing someone who has been out of work lately, “we will ask: ‘What have you done during that time frame?’ If we get 'Nuthin,' that shows something about the individual, from a motivational perspective.”

Career Lattice, Not Ladder

Several of the Town Hall speakers talked about the need for older, unemployed people to think less about a career ladder and more about a career lattice, where you may move sideways or up (or sometimes down) over the course of your worklife.

“Think about the skills and competencies you need to develop” to find that next job, said Mullan.

And if you have spent your career in the corporate world, think about your skills that could translate to the nonprofit world, perhaps as an encore career. “A lot of skills might be relevant there and you might have a better shot of getting your foot in the door,” said Heidkamp. “If you had a marketing or a legal background, tweak your resumé, network and look for relevant opportunities that can let you transition to some other kind of job where you’re still using those skills.”

While you’re networking, Van Horn advised, get written recommendations from trusted sources. They can help convince prospective employers that you’ve got the goods.

What Employers Could Do

One thing the Town Hall panelists said employers should do: Hire based on competency, not on whether an applicant happens to have a job right now.

“A number of employers are doing competency-based postings. Instead of saying a B.S. is necessary, they talk about the skills needed for the job. I think that is so much better, certainly for career changers,” said Oates.

The Relief of Working Again

Finally finding work when you’re over 50 and unemployed for a stretch can be a relief for far more than financial reasons.

“Once I landed my job, the thing I most looked forward to was the weekend,” said Konopka. “Not to relax, but because I didn’t have to think about finding a job anymore. That’s 24/7 in your head. You’re always thinking on a Saturday: 'If I’m not doing something to find a job, will there be a posting out there?'”


This story is part of our partnership with Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America, a public media initiative created to stimulate a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty. Major funding is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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