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Proving relevance is key to job hunt for older workers

Although employment in San Diego County -- and other places throughout the country -- has returned to its prerecession highs, it hasn’t kept up with population growth: The jobless rate remains stubbornly high and the percentage of job seekers who have been out of work for more than six months is still nearly twice as high as it was before the recession began.

The people who have been hurt the most are older workers who try to re-enter a labor market that has changed dramatically since they lost their last job.

As of February, 3.8 million Americans have been out of work for six months or more, representing nearly a third of the total number of jobless. That's down from 4.7 million a year ago, but that's mostly because more jobs have been opening up for younger people.

Unemployed job seekers from age 45 to 54 were out of work for 45 weeks on average, and those from age 55 to 64 averaged 57 weeks, according to an Associated Press poll last year.

In comparison, the overall average was 36 weeks at that time, and 45 percent of workers found jobs in less than 15 weeks.

A Congressional report last year blamed the problem largely on the workers: "Workers in this age group are less likely to pursue additional job training and education, their salary requirements are higher, and their skill sets may be more difficult to match with the needs of today’s marketplace."

But human resources executives in a roundtable discussion organized by The Daily Transcript, which was sponsored by the San Diego Society for Human Resource Management, said older people might have a better chance of finding work if they emphasized the positive qualities they could bring to potential employers -- and if the employers were more open to recognizing those qualities instead of being put off by issues associated with age.

The executives said companies sometimes prefer younger employees because they are perceived as having more energy, flexibility and willingness to take risks -- as well as willingness to take lower wages.

But Tom Ingrassia, partner at the Petit Kohn Ingrassia & Lutz law firm, said older workers can bring different values, such as job stability.

Younger workers these days are often looking for temporary way-stations on their career path, "so you're lucky if you get them for a year or two," he said.

But older workers are more likely to look at a job as a more permanent position -- perhaps the final stop before retirement, meaning it’s less likely that the employer will have to go through the time and expense of hiring and training somebody to replace them anytime soon.

"Even if you're a 60-year-old who plans to retire at 65, some employers will value that because it means that they can keep that position filled for five years without having to look for a replacement," Ingrassia said.

Chris Bryant, president of the San Diego Employers Association, cited other motivations as she told of how she recently hired a 65-year-old, even though most of the employees are several decades younger.

She said that what she got through the new hire "were the connections and relationships that had been built over the years, the ability to open doors and enough experience so I don't have to spend a lot of time training or holding hands."

But the speakers cautioned that older employees should not rely on the length of their resumes alone, and instead focus on specific qualities they could bring to the workplace.

“You might have a great resume, but the nature of jobs has been changing so much that you have to think about how you can best add value to your employer instead of just focusing on what you've been doing in the past 30 years,” said Nina E. Woodard, who owns a management consulting firm in Vista bearing her name.

“The track record of track records is not so good these days,” said Claudia Schwartz, principal of the HR Results employment agency.

Jason Martin, president of the San Diego Organizational Development Network, or ODNet, said what's more important than a sterling resume is the ability for job seekers to show that they have skills that are relevant to the employers specific needs.

Martin is currently working on a book about that problem: "Herding Dinosaurs." But despite the reference to dinosaurs in the title, Martin said, "it's not about age. It's about relevance. Dinosaurs can be any age. You can have 18-year-old dinosaurs. To avoid that, you have to keep asking yourself, 'What can I do to make myself relevant?'"

Jeff Lindeman, who oversees human resources at the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, said it's important for employers to keep relevance in mind when conducting job interviews.

"In today's world, the most important thing that employers need to look at which individuals can increase the likelihood of the company moving forward and what capabilities they can bring to the table," Lindeman said.

Roundtable Participants

* Natasha Arthur, President, San Diego Society for Human Resource Management (sponsor)

* Chris Bryant, President, San Diego Employers Association

* Michelle Dente, Vice President of Human Resources, Ace Parking

* Tom Ingrassia, Partner, Petit Kohn Ingrassia & Lutz

* Jeff Lindeman, Senior Director of Organizational Performance and Development, San Diego Regional Airport Authority

* Jason Martin, President, San Diego Organizational Development Network

* Claudia Schwartz, Principal, HR Results

* Cy Wakeman, Author and National Speaker, Cy Wakeman Inc.

* Nina Woodard, Owner, Nina Woodard & Associates

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