Liabilities? Not Necessarily

Don't just assume that if you're older, physically disabled, or too specialized that you can't find a job in today's tough market

Q: I am an information technology specialist with 27-plus years at a major company in the computer industry. The work I do is very specialized. That means I am not vulnerable to being laid off -- at least for now. But it also means that I lack a broad area of expertise. To complicate matters, I have an injury that has kept me off the job, and when I return in a few months I'll still be restricted in what I can do. I feel my career is at a dead end. I can't retire because my nest egg has been depleted by the downturn in the stock market. Who would hire a 49-year-old physically limited individual who has spent close to three decades at the same company?

--Name Withheld

A: Given the horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, let's begin by talking about job hunting, post-Sept. 11. Americans are being exhorted to get back to business as usual. That means, among other things, resuming job searches. But that doesn't mean disregarding the obvious -- that many workplaces are reeling from the terrorist bombings. Use utmost tact and respect when you contact employers, especially if you are calling someone in the two cities most affected by the calamity, New York and Washington, D.C.

Richard Bayer, chief operating officer of the Five O'Clock Club, a career-counseling group, recommends beginning the conversation along the lines of: "I hope you and your company are safe and well." Be sure also to ask if now is a good time to talk. Take your cues from the responses.

Now, let's get to the crux of your letter. You've identified four sources of worry: your disability, your age, your skill set, and your long tenure with one company. Let's tackle them one by one.

First, disability. Consider placing a call to the Job Accommodation Network, which gives free information over-the-phone on disability and work. The project is based at West Virginia University and is funded by the U.S. Labor Dept. The phone number is (800) 526-7234. Consultants there have information about essential matters such as devices that could keep you fully productive -- phone amplifiers for the deaf, voice-recognition technology for those with difficulty typing, and the like.


  You can also get information about your "rights and responsibilities" under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws, says D.J. Hendricks, a manager at the group, as well as practical advice on issues such as how to write a letter requesting that your employer make an accommodation for you. By the way, don't be so quick to abandon your current employer, Hendricks says. Even if, with accommodations, you believe you can't fully do your old job, have you thought about poking around your workplace for a new one that you can do?

Your age could be less of a problem than you think, says Barbara Mitchell, a principal at the Millennium Group International, a human resources consultant in Vienna, Va. "Forty-nine is young in our world," she says. Just ask all those graying Baby Boomers. The important thing, adds Bayer, is to dispel the stereotype that older workers resist change and lack energy. One older job candidate Bayer knows sent the message subtly: Along with his briefcase, he brought his gym bag to job interviews.

That leads to the next issue: making sure that your skills are up-to-date and broadened. The job market may look gloomy now, but employers are always on the prowl for "intellectual capital," says career counselor Robert Gardner of Gardner Associates in Oakland, Calif. Get active in whatever association represents your profession so you can expose yourself to the latest ideas and trends, and consider taking college courses to give you new skills, says Bayer.


  Also, you might take on consulting, where you could learn by doing. Bayer knows of a man who felt he needed to learn computer networking and was friendly with owners of a bakery that needed such work done. The man offered to do the job for a low fee, cracked open a manual -- and taught himself an invaluable skill.

As for your 27-plus years at one company, don't assume this will thwart you. True, employees are more apt to be job-hoppers today than in the past. But your longevity says volumes about your loyalty and commitment, to say nothing of how highly your bosses must think of you, says Mitchell.

Take heart in the following: Others have made midlife changes. Marcia Bench, who runs the San Diego-based Career Coach Institute, recalls a recent 40-something client who had spent his entire working life in manufacturing. With the right training and job-hunting strategies, he landed a job at a distribution company. The icing on the cake? The new job came with a raise.

Have a question about your career or workplace issues? E-mail us at, or write to Ask Careers, BusinessWeek Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information. Only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

By Pamela Mendels in New York

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