THEY'D RATHER BE AT WORK

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Imogene Flowers says that if she wasn't working, she'd be too bored to enjoy life.

The 63-year-old Dundalk woman could have retired last year, but decided she would continue waiting on customers at a downtown Baltimore Walgreen store.

"I'd rather wait until I'm 65 or older" to retire, she said. "As long as my health allows me, I want to work."

More eligible-for-retirement workers like Flowers are expected to stay on the job during the coming years either because they enjoy it, they need the income or they want to try a new field.

Some employers are reaching out to older job seekers through campaigns, partnerships and niche job advertisements. The efforts are a way for employers to avoid the labor shortage that some predict will occur as the baby boomers reach retirement age. Experts warn older job seekers that the job market can be tough, but there are opportunities out there for them.

The American work force has been maturing for years. The percentage of people 55 and older in the workplace was 15.6 percent, or about 23 million in 2004, up from about 12 percent in 1994. A report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that proportion to reach 19 percent by 2012. And a 2004 study by the AARP found that more than three-quarters of baby boomers expect to work beyond age 62.

This shift is occurring as more workers stay in their jobs or decide to come back after retiring. Layoffs and benefit-slashing have made it harder for people to retire, since many lost pension plans or need health insurance, experts said. It also comes amid a congressional debate about changes to Social Security. Workers are eligible to receive reduced Social Security benefits at 62. Or they can wait until they are between 65 and 67, depending on their year of birth, to receive full benefits.

Flowers, who works 32 hours a week as a cashier, said she may leave Walgreen in a few years after adding to her retirement fund and taking advantage of the company's matching policy for her 401(k) contributions. She joined Walgreen in 2000 after being laid off from a clothing factory where she had worked for 32 years. She said the longer she works, the more money she will have to travel or buy gifts for her grandchildren.

Some older workers use the experience they've acquired through the years to earn higher salaries or advance their careers. Others look for a less demanding position in order to have money coming in.

Many who continue to work want some sort of structure in their lives, according to the AARP, because they believe it helps them stay active and healthy.

"Some senior workers come in and say 'I had a career, now I just want a job to have some extra money,'" said Rosalind Howard, general manager of four Baltimore career centers operated by the Mayor's Office of Employment Development. "Others go beyond that and say 'I want to change careers and I want to learn new skills.' "

Fran Shellenberger, 70, puts in more than 40 hours a week as executive assistant to the Maryland secretary of aging.

She said the job is rewarding because it allows her to stay active in state politics. Shellenberger ran as a Republican for the House of Delegates in 1998 and for the Senate in 2002. Her efforts were unsuccessful, but the experience helped her make contacts in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration.

"Unretired" in 2003

She turned her career as a legal secretary into a law firm consulting business in the 1970s. Shellenberger "retired" in 2002, but came back to work a year later.

"I expected to be retired by now with a husband living in a cabin in Montana, or a place on the Maryland Shore, but I don't have the partner," said Shellenberger, who is divorced. "So when I retire, it will be a place where I can be happy to be by myself."

Joseph DeMattos Jr., state director for AARP in Maryland, says many mature job seekers struggle with age discrimination and other barriers to landing work.

Employers "are not beating down our doors," said Renee Ward, founder of Seniors4Hire, a job search company based in Huntington Beach, Calif. "I've gone hoarse telling companies how important this is and some of them just don't get it. ... I'm not seeing a huge change, but I'm seeing some change."

Ward said she has heard stories from clients who are treated as if they are less competent or show up at an interview and are looked at with shock.

Some employers are reluctant to hire older workers, Ward said, because they fear older workers will mean higher health care expenses or think they're not willing to commit to years of service with the company.

But Suzann Trevisam, a senior manager for recruiting and retention at Borders Group Inc., the Ann Arbor, Mich., retailer, said adding older workers to the company's health plan does not necessarily increase costs. The way she sees it, individuals of any age can drive up health care expenses when faced with serious illnesses.

Mature workers tend to stay in their jobs longer than younger workers, Trevisam said. At Borders, the retention rate for workers older than 50 is twice the rate for workers younger than 30.

The job search process for an older worker involves changing the mentality of both the worker and potential employer, said Howard, the career centers manager. Workers need to overcome fear of rejection. And employers need to learn to stop focusing on dates and look at skills, she said.

"Do not carry a chip on your shoulder," Ward said. "Really assess your capabilities and really articulate your capabilities in the best way possible."

AARP campaign

The AARP began a campaign in February that highlights 13 featured employers - companies that actively seek older workers. The companies that have signed on include Walgreen, Borders Books and Music, and the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System.

"The idea of how to keep mature workers in the work force has been something we have looked at for some time," said Pamela Paulk, vice president of human resources for Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins Health System. "Particularly in health care, the knowledge people gain over the years is not something a new person will have. There is nothing that replaces experience."

Like many health care organizations, Hopkins is making an attempt to prepare for a major labor shortage in the future.

3-part strategy

Paulk said Hopkins has a three-part strategy for increasing its number of older workers: keep employees on staff as long as possible, train existing employees in jobs for which demand is expected to rise, and encourage younger people to enter the health care field.

For Flowers, her job at Walgreen has been a welcome switch from working in a factory to working with customers. One of her co-workers said people come into the store every day and ask for her by name.

"I decided I want to work with the public," Flowers said. "I want to meet different people every day, work with them and help cheer them up."

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