Maria Heidkamp, a Senior Researcher at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, studies issues affecting dislocated workers, older workers, the long-term unemployed, and people with disabilities. She recently co-authored a forthcoming study for AARP on education and training opportunities for older jobseekers as well as a study for the U.S. Department of Labor on promising community college-employer partnership models and career pathways initiatives. She is currently conducting several evaluations of programs to help the long-term unemployed and adults with disabilities.
What challenges do older workers face in the U.S. labor market?
Older workers face a range of challenges in the labor market. Among the most critical is that while they are less likely than younger “prime age” workers to be unemployed, when they do lose a job, they face a high risk of joining the ranks of the long-term unemployed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in September 2014, the average duration of unemployment for older jobseekers was about 42 weeks, compared to about 30 weeks for younger job seekers, and roughly 43 percent of older job seekers were out of work for 27 weeks or more—the definition of long-term unemployed—compared to 31 percent for those under age 55.
How is the U.S. public workforce system currently serving older job seekers?
Some older workers need to upgrade their skills to remain employed or to get another job after a layoff; others need help navigating a job search process that is radically different than it would have been the last time they looked for work. Heldrich Center and other researchers have found that the public workforce system historically underserves older job seekers.
Why is that?
There are several causes. One is a tendency of staff at the public workforce system’s One Stop Career Centers (also known as American Job Centers) to refer older workers to a small program that emphasizes community service employment opportunities for very low-income, low-skilled older job seekers rather than serving them under the primary workforce programs under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). Also possibly contributing to reluctance to serve older job seekers are performance measures that focus on employment and earnings gains that are more difficult to show improvement in for older workers. WIA was recently reauthorized, and the new Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA) may address at least the performance measurement issue. At the same time, some public workforce system staff have reported in interviews that some older workers prefer to avoid training, either because they fear they may not be able to keep up with younger workers, especially younger workers who are more tech savvy, or because they are reluctant to “start over” for a new career.
How can employers better serve older employees?
Depending on the work environment, employers can make a range of adaptations that may make it easier to attract and retain older employees, including those who may have age-related disabilities. For example, we did some research a few years ago of workplace changes that some healthcare employers were making to accommodate aging nurses. Some of the changes we found included: repositioning floor refrigerators that store medications to countertops to reduce the amount of bending nurses had to do; installing anti-fatigue mats; and using “talking” blood pressure machines that make it easier for those with vision issues to get the readings they need. Other changes, which have been used by a variety of employers, involve incorporating more workplace flexibility, including opportunities for phased retirement, work-at-home, and seasonal or weekend-only work. We have also done some research on “stay at work/return to work” strategies some employers are using, which are designed to help an employee avoid prolonged and often unnecessary absences due to an injury or illness.
Longer lives can mean more careers throughout a person's lifetime. Are older workers able to actualize this opportunity?
In our study for AARP, we found that one of the biggest challenges for older job seekers is a lack of access to unbiased, high-quality career advising. Older workers need access to qualified, impartial advisors—online and in person—to help them navigate and understand their options for training, education, and job prospects. This includes being informed about the potential return on investment for education and training they are considering, and assessing the validity of claims made by education and training providers about likely employment outcomes, which are sometimes overstated.
How can we better enable older workers to find their second, third or fourth careers?
There are programs that exist to encourage older workers to pursue second or third “encore” careers that may involve moving into jobs that make a meaningful social contribution, such as in education or healthcare. Another effort just getting underway is advocating for nonprofits to hire the long-term unemployed, including older job seekers. As older workers continue to be a bigger presence in the workforce—even as older Baby Boomers start to retire—we may see more of these kinds of initiatives to help them transition to second and third careers that may be very different from their initial occupations.
Interview by Jordan G. Teicher