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Jobless At 50? It's Not Hopeless

Social Issues


When CAE-Link Corp. closed its Sunnyvale (Calif.) plant last year, Rod Loehr seemed destined to be another unemployment statistic. After all, he was 54 and had worked for CAE-Link for 33 years. But Loehr, an engineer, wasn't ready to retire--and didn't have to. He soon landed a better-paying job.

Loehr's secret? Resourceful networking and new skills. He used CAE-Link's data base of employees to get in touch with old colleagues. And Loehr never let himself rely on past achievements. He learned new software, and he plans on tackling network technology next. "Taking classes helped me get the position I'm in, because they saw that I was alive and not just flesh and bones," says Loehr, now an engineering manager at Litton Applied Technology.

Loehr is one of the fortunate few--but he's not the only over-50 success story these days. To be sure, tough times have made it difficult for all age groups to find jobs, but older workers have had it especially rough. They have had to fight society's preoccupation with youth, not to mention outright age discrimination. And their higher salaries have made them prime targets for layoffs. From 1989 to 1992, the number of over-50s who were unemployed jumped 68.1%, compared with a 40.6% increase for people under 50.

But now, there is some evidence that as the economy improves, the tide may be turning for older workers, although still not quite as fast as for younger ones. Through October, the average number of unemployed over-50s dropped 4.5% from last year, compared with a 5.1% decline for workers under 50. Age-discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dropped by 9.2% in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

MORE SEASONING. For many job hunters and career counselors, the statistics show what they already knew: While age can sometimes be an obstacle, it's not always an insurmountable one--and it can even be an asset. "We are definitely seeing more of an interest in older workers," says Kate Wendleton, founder of the Five O'Clock Club, a national career-strategy group. "Companies that were burned by the young MBAs are deciding that they want more seasoned talent."

Some veteran managers who have been laid off from large companies are being grabbed by their former rivals. Others are selling their skills as temporary CEOs. But elder workers at all levels are having the most luck targeting smaller companies, where their ability to step right in is key. Still, no matter where older workers set their sights, the strategy used to find work is essential to their success (table).

For older casualties of downsizing who keep their skills current, finding a job may be little more painful than it is for younger applicants. Consider an internal survey by Jannotta Bray & Associates, a Chicago-based career management-services firm. So far this year, it found that executives over 50 earning upwards of $100,000 took an average of eight months to place, according to Don Wilson, Midwest managing director. For executives under 50, placement took about seven months. But Wilson warns that chance of success may boil down to how far past 50 the individual is.

"In the early 50s, it's a difficult search but not as difficult as for those on the other half of the midpoint--55 and above," he says.

Dean E. Ridlon was 55 when he landed on the street after a long career in banking, most recently as the head of the trust department at the Bank of Boston. But he got lucky. An executive recruiter called on his first day at home. Within weeks, he was CEO of Haldor Investment Advisors in Boston. He now manages $1 billion in assets and a staff of 13. Although it's a smaller group, he earns much more than before. "These older executives often have a more rational perspective," says Nicholas Hurd, the Boston-based executive search consultant who recruited Ridlon to Haldor.

RIVAL BIDS. No matter what your age, it helps if you're known in the field--and fortunate to be in an industry with jobs. That's what Jeanne Pape, 51, discovered last summer, when her division was downsized. Pape had spent the past 27 years in sales for A.C. Nielsen Co. and its successors. Over the years, she had built a name for herself in publishing, both through her work and her trade-group activities. So when she got axed, she landed interviews with her former rivals--and a "better deal," she says. She now sells computer services to magazine publishers for JCI Data Processing Inc. in Cinnaminson, N.J.

Some older workers are opting not to look for jobs at all. When Richard Hite's marketing position at Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. was phased out this summer, he chose a severance package instead of a job within the company. He used the money and his 29 years of experience to launch Results Inc., a consulting firm near Toledo. Since opening five months ago, Hite has lined up enough clients to earn about half his former six-figure salary this year. If business keeps up, he hopes to exceed his prior income by early 1995.

Of course, positive thinking and grit can go only so far when good jobs are few. Dorothy Mann, 53, has been job hunting since February, 1992, when her position as marketing manager at Purdy Products, a cleaning-goods manufacturer, was cut. She has had two temporary jobs in the interim. When Mann is not working, she mails out 15 resum s a week and averages four interviews a month. Even though she has been offered three full-time jobs this year, all paid at least $15,000 less than her former $45,000 salary.

It's never easy to be unemployed, but longevity is giving Mann and others reason to take heart. "When I started 15 to 20 years ago, people used to be concerned when they turned 40," says Bill Beeson, a partner at Lawrence-Leiter and Co., a search firm in Kansas City, Mo. Now, "the age has crept up to 50." If workers stay productive, and companies get smart, it'll keep rising.A LIFELONG STRATEGY


Laid-off older workers can buck the odds and snag good jobs by applying the

same techniques as younger workers:

-- Constantly upgrade skills instead of resting on past performance

-- Develop a broad and expanding range of contacts and keep current

-- Target high-growth

jobs or industries, or small businesses

-- Market experience, energy, and flexibility--not years of service

-- Price skills according to what the market will bear instead of prior salary


Lori Bongiorno in New York, with Ann Therese Palmer in Chicago, Judy Temes in Boston, and bureau reports

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