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Ageism and the Workforce Crunch

Published Wednesday Feb 13, 2019

Author Judi Currie

In the state with the one of the oldest populations in the country, there have been numerous forums, articles and strategies focused on attracting and retaining millennials, and a recent report from the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of NH shows that those strategies have borne fruit: More people in their 20s moved to NH from other states between 2013 and 2017 than in the previous five years.

All of this focus on millennials, though, may mean some businesses are overlooking an existing, and abundant, labor source. A recent targeted job fair demonstrated that older workers are ready to help meet the workforce shortage. The question is, are employers ready to hire them?

According to NH Employment Security, the Experienced Workers Job and Resource Fair in early November drew 674 job seekers who had the opportunity to meet with more than 80 employers. And about a dozen organizations were on hand with advice for job seekers, including event cosponsor AARP.

Todd Fahey, state director for AARP NH, says the state has plenty of workers; they just happen to be older. He says companies need to tune in to the way the older demographic is changing. “Companies are not necessarily trying to exclude older workers; they may simply be overlooking them or just not looking at them through the right lens,” Fahey says. “There are plenty of people over 65 who are not slowing down at all.”

Mark Rubenstein, president of Granite State College, says companies won’t find the number of workers they need unless they capitalize on older workers. “Employers desperately need effective communicators, people who can think critically, use good judgement, and work collaboratively with clients and coworkers. Those are skills honed over time, so [other] adult workers already have those difficult-to-find skills employers value so much.”

Concerns About Discrimination
That message, though, isn’t reaching all employers. A 2018 AARP study, “Age Discrimination Against Older Workers,” found that, of 3,900 adults over the age of 45 polled nationally, 61 percent have either seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace and 38 percent believe the practice is “very common.”

Just how prevalent age discrimination may be in the Granite State is a bit murky. According to data published by the state Human Rights Commission, since 2010 only 40 cases on average are filed annually involving age discrimination in employment. The Commission data does not explain how the majority of those cases are resolved, listing only a handful each year as closed or settled.

Attorney Jon Meyer of Backus, Meyer & Branch in Manchester says the low number of complaints and lawsuits filed grossly understates the problem and reflects the difficulty in proving a claim. “Of all types of discrimination, age is as prevalent as any other,” Meyer says. “But it is very different from sexual harassment, where there is often an [overt] action, or disability, where there is a lack of accommodation. Those are [easier] to show. Age discrimination doesn’t leave the same fingerprints.”

Meyer says the Commission’s data reflect a resource shortage at the Commission. “The issue of delays has been a chronic problem going back 30 years. I think it is a resource issue. ... There are not enough investigators. The process is a problem, too,” Meyer says. “An investigation typically doesn’t start for one to two years and can go on for two to three years. They only have one public hearing a year, which isn’t much given the fact that they get over 200 cases [per] year.”

Meyer says after six months many of those cases can be removed to court, and some claimants probably just give up. “If you’re 70, three years is a long time to wait—maybe too long,” he says.

According to a report issued in June by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as workers get older, the number of age-related claims is increasing. But Fahey says with so much opportunity in NH, he wants to focus on changing attitudes.

“This isn’t about age discrimination; it is about making the viable, common sense business case for employers to tap into that resource, and there’s no reason not to make the case with unemployment at 2.7 [percent],” he says. “In New Hampshire we have some of the best talent, and they can train the next generation. That would be incredible for New Hampshire. Policy makers could look at tax incentives to get companies to think differently about this.”

Though computers have been in the workplace for decades, the perception lingers that younger workers are more likely to have desirable tech skills. But Rubenstein says there’s always risk categorizing by generation. “You may find people in [their] 70s who are really tech-savvy, then find younger workers who are great on social media and gaming but their productive use of technology is not there,” he says.

“It still seems a great deal of our resources are aimed at attracting young professionals; there should be similar effort at activating the resource that is already here.”

Matt Nagler, managing partner at BANKW Staffing in Bedford, says there’s a benefit to hiring employees who have been in the workforce longer. “They may not use the latest technology, but they have worked hands-on through growth, change and development of organizations. In any economy where organizations go through growth, especially in tech, these types of workers have valuable experience.”

At Granite State College, Rubenstein says more experienced workers can get credit for documented knowledge and competence. “Perhaps they have been working in a small business handling marketing or accounting and can demonstrate those abilities through a portfolio,” Rubenstein says. “If so, we will award up to two years’ worth of credits toward a bachelor’s degree. We try to make it as feasible, efficient and cost effective as it can be to fill in the gaps and bring the outcome they are looking for, rather than sell them a degree.”

Nagler says BANKW Staffing provides job candidates access to a technology platform that has more than 1,000 software tech and business tools, and they also provide coaching. “As they talk to us about what they hope to accomplish, we assist them to pull out skills they already have to leverage those to get to the next level.”

The AARP has a list of links for “job searching in the digital age” that cover how to use various job search engines, how to spruce up a resume, and even how to age-proof a resume. All these strategies are aimed at getting people who want to work back into the workforce and into companies that desperately need their skills.

“The mindset older employees have is that they want to learn new things; they like to go back to school and take college courses,” says Wanda Botticello, recruitment and certification administrator for NH Division of Personnel. “While younger workers may have the technology and the education, they don’t have time in the trenches. We like to pair the younger workers with the more experienced ones.”

Opportunity Abounds at the Job Fair

Photo by Judi Currie.

Among the job seekers at the Experienced Workers Job and Resource Fair held in Manchester in early November were people who have specific skills in fields with limited opportunity, but most were willing to consider other areas.

Among them was Robert, who has about 20 years of experience as a master mechanic. He is looking for part-time work on autos or light trucks, but would consider a new career path. “I have always had the ability, God bless, to look at things and be able to figure them out,” he says.  “For what I do, there is not a lot of opportunity. But older workers have the right state of mind; they are experienced and serious about their work.”

Jen says she is looking for full-time employment. “The company I worked for was sold, and I was eliminated. There are plenty of jobs to apply for; it’s just getting calls back. It is fascinating to me that somebody saw a need for the experienced worker job fair.”

Dottie was part of a layoff in May at Timberland in Stratham. She says she is looking for clerical or human resources work, but will consider other areas. “I’m not picky,” she says.

Among the employers that were recruiting at the fair, many were happy with the turnout and the enthusiasm of the job seekers. Jina Handschumaker, an HR manager for Community Integrated Services, a Manchester-based organization that assists people with disabilities, mental illness, and others with varying daily living needs, says, “Experienced workers are some of our best recruits and are a good fit as caregivers.” “They are often just looking for something part time to supplement retirement.”

Wanda Botticello, recruitment and certification administrator for NH Division of Personnel, has a list of current openings that is 27 pages long. She says the average age of a state employee is 47, so experienced workers are likely to be a good fit. “We have full- and part-time openings for cooks and chauffeurs, business administrators, project managers, and people to work at the veteran’s home in Tilton,” she says.

Maria Daggett is a recruiter for Durham School Services, a bus company that has contracts with many NH school districts to transport students with special needs. “We have about 20 openings, and we will have more as we grow,” Daggett says. “Every bus company in the state is struggling with a nationwide shortage of transportation workers.” Also at the job fair was Greyhound, a commercial bus company with about 22 openings and no age limit as long as a person is able to do the job.

Veronica Lane, an HR recruiter for JP Pest Services in Milford, was looking for an accounts receivable assistant and a customer service representative, as well as technicians, but says applicants with other backgrounds are certainly welcome.

“For the technicians, we do all the training. In fact sometimes it’s better if they have no experience so we can train them to our standards. They take the truck home at night, and we try to make sure they don’t have to travel more than 30 miles from home. We want our employees to have work-life balance. These are career positions with full benefits at a family-owned business,” she says.

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