Programs help older workers reenter local job market
Bureau of Labor Statistics figures indicate older workers became a growing factor in the nation's labor force from the mid-1990s through the early years of the new millennium — a trend that is expected to continue.
Workers age 65 or older are projected to account for 6.1 percent of the total workforce in 2016.
The loss of investment values that followed during the Great Recession, longer life expectancies and rising costs for medical care have all provided added incentives for senior workers to delay retirement or reenter the labor pool.
Some, whose careers may have been cut short near the very end by recession-driven layoffs, have an even more urgent need to once more be drawing a paycheck.
In Indiana County, the job search options for those age 55 or older include two similar programs operated by separate organizations.
PathStone, based regionally in Punxsutawney, and Experience Works, with an area office in Marienville, each offer help for unemployed job-seekers age 55 or older through the Senior Community Service Employment Program.
Those who meet income guidelines — 125 percent of poverty level, currently $14,588 for a single-person household — can seek part-time employment with a nonprofit organization or governmental unit. Their paychecks — generally at minimum wage — are covered by the respective employment agency, with the eventual goal of having them transition to a more permanent, self-sustaining job.
Ideally, the subsidized job placements provide a double benefit — much-needed assistance at no extra cost for the partnering nonprofit and valuable experience and potential job contacts for the participating older worker.
Ron Powell of Indiana is among 36 people currently served by the PathStone office in Punxsutawney.
That office oversees job placements in Indiana, Jefferson and Clarion counties — among 10 Pennsylvania counties included in the organization's service area.
Depending on availability of funding, participants work between 15 and 20 hours per week at such locations in Indiana County as the Chevy Chase Community Center and the Indiana County Community Action Program (ICCAP) Food Bank.
“Some are unemployed, some are housewives and some are recent widows,” said Dorothy Andrews, training and employment specialist at the Punxsutawney office. “They're at an age when it's not easy to find work, and they're trying to get some skills so they can be employable.”
Powell, 57, recently began working 15 hours per week at Indiana's Jimmy Stewart Museum, another nonprofit job site that has partnered frequently with PathStone.
A late 1970s graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania who majored in political science, Powell noted his career has consisted mainly of a series of stints in various positions that were phased out when the government funding that supported them came to an end.
Those posts have included a temporary job related to the 1980 U.S. Census, classified work with Johnstown defense contractor Concurrent Technologies and two stints with ICCAP — originally as a data analyst and, more recently, as a warehouse supervisor for the agency's home weatherization program.
Powell became unemployed in April 2012 when the latter ICCAP job ended — along with the economic stimulus dollars that had funded it, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Powell subsequently linked up with PathStone while taking advantage of job counseling and related services offered through the PA Career Link office in Indiana. Among the assistance he received at Career Link was help applying for ObamaCare after the medical insurance he'd had through the provisions of COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) expired.
Because of his social service background, he noted, he initially was placed in a PathStone-supported position at the Chevy Chase center in Indiana, which provides a variety of services to youth and low-income residents.
But, he said, he soon found a job even more to his liking at the Jimmy Stewart Museum.
“I guess it's just history and the museum part of it,” Powell said, when explaining what attracted him to his current post. “I've always liked museums.”
“I get to work in the gift shop. I meet people and get them started on tours, and I'm around for questions if they have any. It's a very good combination.”
Sharing insights about exhibits with museum visitors is something that comes naturally to Powell. Citing an avid interest in NASA space programs, he recalled he would often engage other visitors when spending time at the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C.: “Every time I would end up with as many people gathered around me as the tour guides.”
Museum Director Tim Harley said Powell is at least the seventh PathStone participant who has spent time working at the Jimmy Stewart attraction, augmenting the efforts of volunteer staff.
Noting that the museum has been financially challenged in recent years, Harley said, “To have people like PathStone provides come in and help us with operations at no cost is part of what helps keep us going.
“We're very happy to participate. It helps us as a nonprofit and helps these folks. A number of them have gone on to find jobs.”
“My long-term goal is to get back into government service,” Powell said, noting the years of experience he can bring to the table.
But, he acknowledged, “It's a tight competition now for that type of position. I just apply and hope for the best.”
Unlike Powell, Ray George, 69, of Indiana, was driven more by restlessness than by personal economics when he decided to reenter the job market.
“It's something to do, and it's more pocket money,” George said of the part-time job he holds down in the cafe at the Indiana County Technology Center — an ongoing job that grew out of a temporary placement through the Experience Works program.
Originally from Braddock, George was a welder for most of his life. But, in 1993, he switched gears, going back to school to study business.
The following year, he began working as an assistant administrator for a Reese Brothers call center in Oil City. Computer skills were among the requirements of that job, which had him working the midnight shift, compiling data from the previous day's volume of calls.
“Any reports they might need run, I would run for them,” George said.
In 2003, George lost his job with Reese through company downsizing, but he was able to return to welding for a few more years until he retired and, in 2007, moved to Indiana to be closer to his ailing mother-in-law.
In 2009, he called Experience Works to look into its job placement service after a neighbor passed along a card with contact information for the program.
That program placed him at ICTC as a front-end manager in the cafe, where food is served that is prepared by the school's culinary students.
“They were needing somebody to work their cafe to serve to the staff,” a shift that lasted just two hours, George explained. But, drawing upon his familiarity with computer data, his job also has embraced other tasks — managing databases to track course texts and resources in the school's library as well as compiling results of surveys conducted each semester with adult students enrolled in the school's nursing and cosmetology programs.
“I can set up databases and spreadsheets,” George said. “Every teacher can look at the database and see what books they have.
“Any subscriptions they get in, I added that to their databases.”
There is a lifetime limit of four years for an individual to participate in the Senior Community Service Employment Program.
George noted he worked at ICTC through Experience Works for about three years before shifting to the school's payroll. He said his job has basically remained the same although he now works less frequently with the databases.
Gayle Davis, coordinator for Experience Works in Marienville, noted there was a plan in place to shift George from his work at ICTC to a position at another partner agency — the Indiana Career Link office — to expose him to more job opportunities. But, she said, officials at ICTC “realized they were going to lose him, so they hired him.”
George said he enjoys his job at ICTC and plans to work there “until they get tired of me.”
As for the assistance offered through Experience Works, he said, “I think it's a great opportunity for people interested in finding a job.”
He said such programs can help dispel doubts some may have about the productivity and reliability of older workers.
“They think we can't do anything anymore,” he said. “But most of us are pretty dependable; we show up for work every day.”
With his considerable computer skills, Davis noted that George isn't typical of most who turn to her office for help in finding employment.
“People used to come to us to do clerical-type or janitorial work,” Davis said. “Now they're doing computer-based training to get a whole multitude of different jobs ... That is where this population is lacking.”
Experience Works is the latest version of a program originally launched in the 1960s and originally known as the Green Thumb program, Davis explained,. She noted, “It's expanded every year since then,” now with 11,000 participants across the country.
Funding is obtained through a combination of federal and state sources, depending on the particular geographic service area, she said, adding, “We put 85 percent of our funding directly into participant wages.”
In Indiana County, she estimated there is a list of about 20 people waiting to join the Experience Works program. The wait may not be long, due to a relatively frequent turnover among participants.
Davis acknowledged that the turnover isn't always a result of participants graduating to a permanent job. Sometimes, she noted, they may “give up or move away.”
Demand for Experience Works' services fluctuates, she said: “It does change with the economy and with layoffs — We've had quite a few in the last eight years.”
Davis pointed out that older workers are the most vulnerable to layoffs because they tend to have built up higher wages over time while their skills may be seen as less up-to-date.
If laid off, older workers also face a greater challenge in finding a new job, she added: “These are people who have their houses paid for,” often with children and grandchildren living nearby. “They're not willing to move. They're invested in the community.”
Still, there are other success stories in addition to George's. According to the Experience Works website, nationally 38 percent of the organization's SCSEP participants find permanent jobs, including such positions as teachers' aides, emergency dispatchers and care providers.
Aging Services, Inc., which provides meals and activities for older residents at eight centers in Indiana County, also offers opportunities for those seeking employment.
Nine retirees serve as van drivers for the agency, delivering meals from five of the centers to the homes of participating area seniors.
“They're all retired and these are second jobs,” said Aging Services staffer Jackie Bardroff. “They're out most of the day delivering meals to the people who need them.”
In addition, as a service to the community, Bardroff coordinates Aging Services' “55 and Better” senior employment program.
Bardroff explained she helps match the skills of older residents who apply to the program with positions that may be available in the community. After she helps make the initial connection, details of wages and hours are settled independently between each worker and employer.
“I'm like a broker for the employee and the employer, whatever anybody needs,” she said. “That's our mission, to try to help them out.
“I let the employers know about our program here, and a lot of times, they do want to hire an older, more mature worker.”
Aging Services' senior employment program has been in place for about 14 years, and Bardroff has seen changes in the types of local jobs where older workers are more in demand.
In past years, she noted, mature workers were offered jobs helping in local legal or real estate offices. But, she said, “Those jobs are no longer there.”
Now, she said, the biggest demand is from “individual families that need in-home care; they want to keep their loved ones out of nursing facilities.”
Bardroff will interview employee applicants to assess their skill level and check on past references. She noted retired nurses are among those who have found work as in-home caregivers through the program.
Bardroff also has matched up drivers who are willing to transport older residents to medical appointments at facilities in other counties, such as the Veterans Administration hospital in Altoona.
“We do what we can to get them there,” she said, noting resident who need a caregiver or a ride may be referred to her by caseworkers involved in other programs offered by Aging Services.
While demand for the “55 and Better” program fluctuates over time, Bardroff estimated she receives an average of 40 calls from prospective workers every month and is able to match about half of them with employers.
For more information about the “55 and Better” program, call Bardroff at 724-349-4509 or 800-442-8016.
To reach the area PathStone office, call 814-938-5300. To contact Experience Works, call 814-927-8520.
The Indiana Career Link office can be reached at 724-471-7220.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or firstname.lastname@example.org.