An ‘age-old’ problem Older workers in labor force find job-hunting more difficult

Douglas Bastian works on his computer as he takes care of his baby son, Lane. The 43-year-old with a master’s degree in business administration was laid off in February and is actively looking for work, but can’t find a job.

At 43, Hanahan resident Douglas Bastian, a new father with a master’s degree in business administration, was laid off from work in early February and still can’t find a job.

Luis Cano, 58, a Marine veteran from North Charleston hasn’t held a full-time job in nearly five years.

Naomi Radcliff, 66, of Charleston, has searched for an accountant’s job for the past two and a half years.

They are among Lowcountry residents no longer fresh out of high school or college and above 40 who want to work but can’t find a full-time job. Workers over 40 generally are among the most employed, but once they lose a job, especially those over 55, it’s increasingly difficult for them to find new work.

On average, workers age 55 and up were unemployed 45.6 weeks, compared with 34.7 weeks for workers younger than 55, according to a 2014 analysis by AARP of figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Older workers also face more obstacles to landing a job, including age discrimination and employers’ concerns about their technological competence and ability to learn, said Sara Rix, senior strategic policy adviser with AARP’s Public Policy Institute in a Market Watch report.

Cano, who lost his security job in Florida five years ago when his employer cut back to save money, knows the hardship of looking for full-time work all too well.

“It’s very, very difficult,” Cano said as he looked for a job on a computer at the SC Works Center in North Charleston. “Employers are looking at young people fresh out of high school or college. I don’t think they want to give a job to someone in his 50s, because they don’t think they are going to work very long before they retire or they think they might lose their health.”

Radcliff, who worked as an accountant or bookkeeper most of her life, believes her age is the reason she hasn’t been hired.

“I don’t think they are looking for a model. I don’t apply for model jobs,” she said with a chuckle. “I answer the ads I see on monster.com. I get several interviews. On the phone they tell me how good my qualifications are. I’m just what they need. But when I go for the actual face-to-face interview and they see how old I am, sometimes I don’t even get that interview.”

When she’s not looking for jobs online, she volunteers at her church, works on a book and knits baptizing blankets.

“I’m not one to sit around all day,” Radcliff said. “That is not my thing. I’m able to work, and I want to work.”

Bastian surfs the Internet every day looking for work, applying for two dozen jobs a week. He’s had three face-to-face interviews in three months. None was a fit.

“I believe it’s an employer’s market,” Bastian said. “They have more potential candidates they can choose from. Because a lot of people are still hurting, they are able to low-ball them on salary or wages.”

Bastian realizes he may have to start low, but he asks employers if there is room for advancement so he can increase his earning potential because he is living off savings and his wife’s salary.

“It’s not in either of our best interests to hire me when there is nowhere else to go in the company,” he said. “I want to work, but I want some upward mobility. I still have about 20-25 years to work.”

Bastian, cradling his 9-month-old boy, Lane, while surfing the Internet for jobs, believes his master’s should help him land a job, but he’s finding some employers want specific skills he doesn’t have.

For instance, two major manufacturers wanted experience with programs he wasn’t familiar with.

He doesn’t mind going back to school, but with his unemployed status chewing into savings while trying to stay afloat on jobless benefits and his wife’s earnings, his options are limited to job hunting and hoping something breaks his way.

He doesn’t think his age is working against him.

“I can’t imagine it being age, but maybe it is,” he said. “Right now, there is virtually nothing I wouldn’t do,” Bastian said. “I’m a great worker. I’m intelligent. I get along with people. I have a great friend base, but I feel like I’m letting my family down. I want to be a provider.”

Jamie Wood, workforce development director of SC Works in the Lowcountry, said a shift is taking place for older people looking for work.

“During the past couple of years, we saw older workers taking positions that they had more knowledge for than what was needed,” he said. “The job market seems to be opening up more now so they are getting into more education- and skill-level-appropriate positions. We are seeing older folks need something like a high school diploma or a GED or some kind of skilled training or credential program to be able to get those entry-level or second-level positions.”

Wood added, “It’s harder for the older adult population because the applicant pool is so much larger now. For every position, you have a larger number of people applying so an employer gets their pick. If they don’t have a skill that’s specific, a lot of times it’s harder for older folks to find work.”

Stephen Slifer, a local economist with NumberNomics, believes people who have been out of work for some time have a harder time finding a job because employers question what’s wrong with a person if they have been idle for an extended period.

“If you happen to be on the older end of that group, there is a stigma to hiring older people,” Slifer said. “An employer could hire them, but they could hire a 30-year-old for a substantially smaller amount of money. Do you hire someone who is going to be here five or 10 years or somebody who is going to be here longer and costs less? It makes it difficult for that older group to find a job.”

He believes another problem working against older workers is that the skills set is not matching up with the newly created jobs.

“There are plenty of job openings out there, but the people trying to get those jobs don’t have the skills set for whatever reason,” Slifer said. “The solution is you are going to have to bite the bullet and go to Trident Tech and brush up on your skills.”

Charleston employment attorney Nancy Bloodgood said it’s not unlawful for an employer to lay off an older worker and hire a younger worker to save money.

“A lot of companies are cutting costs by terminating older workers,” Bloodgood said. “Unless you have a statement or something in writing, it’s a type of discrimination case that’s hard to prove. I have an awful lot of people coming in here in their 50s and 60s that were laid off, but I have very few people who have a viable claim. They are being treated unfairly, but it’s not illegal. There could be a legitimate reason for terminating someone to save money.”

She also said times have changed in the workplace and more special skills are required, a factor that affects older people looking for work who might have had the proper education and training for their last job but not for the position they are seeking.

“Where you could have gone from job to job 20 years ago, there may be new technology or different software to keep you out of a job now,” Bloodgood said. “I can see things becoming more and more specialized.”

She cautioned, however, that employers letting workers go because they believe they can’t learn new skills merits scrutiny.

“If you are firing somebody because you perceive they can’t learn new skills, there may be some discrimination,” she said.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.