Zehr: Older workers without jobs face uphill climb
Mar 03, 2013 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Jim and Brenda Barron are frustrated enough, and they're among the lucky ones.
Jim's resume reads like a shoo-in for a high-tech job in Austin. He graduated from the University of Texas with an electrical engineering degree. He worked for a dozen years at Texas Instruments and 16 more at the Applied Research Labs at UT's Pickle Research Campus. He built up an extensive cache of experience at several of Austin's high-tech companies.
Today, though, he lives in an apartment just outside Detroit, where he has a contract position with General Dynamics. He got that job after two years with Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. All told, it's been more than five years since Jim has worked in Austin -- his hometown, where his wife works at Seton Medical Center and where his kids and two grandsons live. He said he gets home once every five or six weeks.
Jim, 63, is circumspect about his current situation. He knows his skills don't fit some of the hot jobs in the Austin market today. He just wants to work.
"The No. 1 factor for my spirit is having a job right now," he said, "and that overrides everything else."
Ask Brenda why her husband can't find a job in Austin, though, and she pulls no punches: "It's because this is a young town, and they want young engineers."
Many unemployed workers over 55 are saying the same thing. While older Americans enjoy a sharply lower unemployment rate than their younger counterparts, researchers have found that those who leave or lose their jobs have a much harder time finding a new one.
From 2009 to 2011, only 15 percent of jobless workers over 55 were able to find another full-time job, according to a national study conducted by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. For unemployed workers 18 to 34 years old, that rate was 41 percent.
The national labor data haven't become much more promising since then. On average over the past 12 months, more than half of the country's unemployed 55-plus workers had gone without jobs for at least 27 weeks, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Stories like the Barrons' -- and there are many others like that one -- suggest the same trends hold in the Central Texas job market as well. Various data hint at a problem but don't provide definitive conclusions.
For example, the median age of unemployed computer and mathematical sciences workers in Austin is 48.8 years old, 18.9 percent higher than the median age of current employees in those fields, according to an analysis by John Rees, research director at Austin-based Avalanche Consulting.
To be sure, the Austin-area workforce as a whole tends to skew younger than national averages. About 38 percent of the Central Texas workforce -- both employed and self-employed -- is over 45 years old, according to a data analysis from Idaho-based Economic Modeling Specialists International. Nationally, that rate is 44 percent.
EMSI took its breakdown a step further, looking at some of Austin's leading high-tech and engineering occupations. While most tracked closely with Austin's general age breakdowns, only civil engineering skewed significantly older. Among the few that were noticeably younger: high-tech sales representatives, computer systems analysts, industrial engineers and electrical engineers -- Jim Barron's bailiwick.
"Austin is the hipster place, we put a premium on youth," said Christopher King, director of UT's Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources. "If you're an older worker and you lose a job, it's really tough to get back in."
The rapidly changing skills requirements of high-tech jobs make it hard enough for engineers and other workers to re-enter the workforce, King said. But an age bias against older workers, whether intentional or not, makes it even harder, he said.
The reasons for that bias are myriad, but national research generally breaks down explanations into four general categories: overt discrimination; more subtle bias or discomfort; a clear skills gap; or real and perceived costs.
"There's a lot of literature out there about age discrimination being very real but also being very hard to measure," said Becky Klein-Collins, director of research at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. "It's mostly anecdotally you hear that age discrimination exists."
More subtly, Klein-Collins said, many managers simply feel uncomfortable hiring an older worker -- particularly when that worker is older and more experienced than they are.
Older job applicants tend to see the issue in these terms, researchers said. Employers tend to frame their decisions as legitimate selections, saying they opted for someone who fits better in the company, is less costly for the business or, as one local executive recruiter said, has more "fire in the belly."
It doesn't help when the networks and connections that workers cobble together in the early stages of career ascendancy grow stale after decades on the job. And no one doubts that many of the skills required in today's workplace are vastly different from 10, 20 or 30 years ago, particularly in tech-related fields.
Companies have also expressed concerns about the costs of hiring older workers. As many firms see it, experienced workers often expect higher wages, push up health-care costs and might sue for age discrimination if they're laid off, experts said.
In short, companies expect to get a higher return on their investment with younger workers, particularly when the work requires extensive on-the-job training, said Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center at Rutgers. Given that employers and workers act in their own self-interests, there's not a whole lot of middle ground on this issue.
"The only thing that bridges it, frankly, is a strong economy, when employers will be hiring anybody," he said.
Nationwide, employment probably won't return to pre-recession levels for three or four years, Van Horn said. So a 55-year-old worker who lost a job will have as much as a decade of work at lower salaries. That means less socked away in a 401(k), fewer years vested in a pension plan, and a lower Social Security benefit after retirement.
The hiring demands of a faster economy should help alleviate the problem, Van Horn and other experts said, but ultimately it's a matter of demographics.
Simply put, the workforce is getting older, and companies will have to adapt, said Kevin Cahill, research economist at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. For most of the last century, the average retirement age steadily dropped. That leveled off in the mid-1980s, Cahill said, and has since started a steady ascent as the Baby Boomers grow older and work longer.
The 55-plus demographic accounts for 20 percent of the workforce, Cahill said. A decade from now, it'll be a quarter of the total labor pool.
"The labor force is aging," he said, "and it has very little to do with the current economy and very much to do with broad demographic trends. ... As time goes on (companies) will have no choice but to look at older workers. And my take is that's a very good thing -- for employers, workers and the country."
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