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Seniors in the workplace

Financial conditions are often cited as the reason for many seniors over 70 going back to work

by: BILL MINTIENS/SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Peggy McCutchen is 73 and has lived in Prineville since 1958. She manages the Neat Repeat store downtown, which is owned by the Soroptimists Senior Center.

By the end of 2011, 37 percent of those unemployed and registered with the Oregon Employment Department in Crook County were 50 years old and older. The 50-to-59 age span comprised 62 percent of this group.
   These are important wage- earning years — if you had a job.
   The unemployment rate for people older than 55 has nearly doubled nationally since the recession began in December 2007. At 6.2 percent in June, it was still lower than the nation’s unemployment rate of 8.2 percent.
   The problem is that the rate has increased faster for seniors than for any other age group since the start of the recession according to a June 2012 AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) study.
   Local data for 2012 is not available for comparison to 2011, but both local and regional sources feel that the unemployment rate for seniors in Crook County has increased in 2012.
   Crook County’s seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate (all age groups) was 14 percent in January 2012 and has fallen to 13.6 percent in June. Statewide, the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate inched up to 8.7 percent in July. Data for 2012 sorted by age is not available.
   As might be expected, the majority of unemployed people older than 50 in Crook County came from construction, manufacturing, and retail sectors.
   On a brighter note, some local seniors, those 70 and over, may have ducked this bullet.
   Melody Gibson, Director at Prineville’s Soroptimists Senior Center, works primarily with older seniors in the community.
   “Our visiting seniors are primarily older, seventies to nineties, and a lot of them live with their families, so having to work is not a concern for them at this stage in their lives,” said Gibson.
   Life is not so easy for every senior over 70 however.
   Peggy McCutchen is 73 and has lived in Prineville since 1958. She manages the Neat Repeat store downtown, which is owned by the Soroptimists Senior Center.
   Having owned, operated, and closed two businesses in Prineville, Wilcut Wood Products, and Peg’s Attic, Peggy has been working hard all her life — and has no plans to retire any time soon.
   “All of our lives we’ve been working, paying for health insurance and supplemental insurance, and it’s still not enough to pay for everything. Either I keep working or we start selling off our assets,” said McCutchen.
   For many people in Crook County, it’s hard to convince them that the “great recession,” which started in December of 2007, ended in June of 2009.
   “I see seniors every day that are in bad shape physically and financially. They’ve been working all their lives and now they have little or nothing. It just makes me sick,” added McCutchen.
   Marie Smith Schifferer, a retired school teacher and gift shop volunteer at the Pioneer Memorial Hospital, agrees that there are a lot of hurting people in Crook County.
   “I’m 81 and fortunate to have good retirement benefits (PERS, Public Employee Retirement System), but I know there are a lot of seniors here that are not so lucky,” said Schifferer.
   For many seniors, comfortable “retirement years” are not in the cards.
   “Financial reasons are the number one reason I see many people going back to work after retirement. The reasons vary. The death of a spouse, divorce, and/or they lost their retirement in the recession,” said T’Ann Curtis, Central Oregon Council on Aging (COCOA) Case Manager.
   And while seniors’ incomes are getting squeezed the cost of healthcare continues to rise.
   “Medicare, supplemental insurance and Part D Medicare costs go up every year. And the cost of living is also on the rise — gasoline, food, everything has gone up quickly,” Curtis added.
   So what happens when a senior (55 and older) decides to reenter the workforce?
   “They’re faced with younger, more tech-savvy people applying for the same jobs. The challenge is to acquire computer skills and up-to-date knowledge of modern business practices,” added Curtis.
   And given the massive influx of “baby boomers” (those born between 1946 and 1964) into the senior ranks, competition for jobs is even tougher. Ten thousand baby boomers are turning 65 every day now for the next decade.
   Kathleen E. Christensen, Program Director with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation noted “The only segment of the workforce that has grown steadily since the late 1980s involves those 55 years and older, and that means that there are now more older Americans in the workforce than ever before. This trend is only going to increase over the coming years.”
   Clearly, education and training play a key role in a senior’s successful reentry into the workplace. But many are not aware of the resources available to them right here in Crook County.
   One key local resource is the Oregon Employment Department’s Worksource Oregon office in Prineville.
   Bobby Swartwood, Account Representative, Business and Employment Services with Worksource Oregon, believes one of the keys to successful reentry is volunteering.
   “A lot of seniors have worked their way into jobs through volunteering. It’s one of the key items for success. By volunteering they get the opportunity to show an employer that they have the right work ethic. They learn a lot and become an asset for the group they’re volunteering with, perhaps getting any positions that open up,” said Swartwood.
   “Once someone comes in and registers with us, we provide them with a ‘debriefing’ which helps them understand all the services available to them,” he added.
   Worksource Oregon also has a relatively new (since 2009) career readiness program for job seekers called the National Career Readiness Program. This program, consisting of a series of “readiness assessments,” provides both the worker and prospective employer with a level of assurance about the basic skills necessary in today’s workplace.
   Once a job seeker completes the readiness assessments, he or she receives a National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC,) printed with their level of achievement, which can be shown to prospective employers.
   Award levels include platinum which demonstrates a skill level ability for 99 percent of jobs in the occupational profile database. The gold level demonstrates a skill level for 90 percent. Silver for 65 percent. And bronze for 35 percent of listed jobs.
   “Since 2009 we’ve been doing initial assessments for workplace skills in reading, basic math, and locating information. Following completion of those, if a person qualifies, we have them take the NCRC exam,” said Swartwood.
   For seniors who may have been out of the workplace for awhile, obtaining a NCRC certificate can be a big confidence builder.
   “With seniors it’s a great thing because it gives them a wonderful boost. Their self-confidence improves and it gives them back a sense of ‘I’m marketable,” added Swartwood.
   Support doesn’t end, however, with obtaining the NCRC certificate. Worksource Oregon also offers free workshops and training to all registered job seekers.
   “We also have free workshops if someone is lacking in certain workplace skills. Interviewing techniques, computer skills, on and on,” he added.
   Swartwood enjoys seeing people, particularly those with low self confidence, complete the program and benefit from the results.
   “You can just see people, after completing a workshop or getting their certificate, standing taller and feeling more confident in their skills,” he added.
   Another local resource is Experience Works, which works closely with Worksource Oregon and many regional senior-oriented groups.
   The organization was chartered in 1965 as “Green Thumb” and began as a small, rural demonstration program. Since that time (and renamed Experience Works) it has grown to be the nation’s leading provider of training, employment, and community service for low-income older Americans.
   Helping low-income seniors with multiple barriers to employment, Experience Works helps seniors get the training they need to find good jobs in their local communities.
   Seniors must first meet the eligibility requirements established by the program. These include being unemployed, age 55 or above, a resident of Oregon, eligible to be employed in the United States, and their annual family income must not be more than 125 percent of the established federal poverty income level.
    Once enrolled, employment interests and goals are established. Then participants are assigned to qualified nonprofit organizations or government agencies on a part-time basis where they are trained and receive work experience by performing their community service training assignment.
   While participants receive training, supervision and experience directly from their assigned agencies, their training wages and fringe benefits are paid by Experience Works.
   Diane Cable, Employment and Training Coordinator for Experience Works’ programs throughout Central Oregon, has directly benefitted from the program.
   “I’m a good example of how well the program works. I was an unemployed senior, applied and was accepted into the training program. And look, I worked hard and here I am today,” said Cable.
   Cable has established working relationships with many local organizations, successfully placing seniors in fulfilling positions.
   “Our wonderful partner agencies include Habitat for Humanity, Department of Health Services, Oregon Employment Department, the Bend Community Center, St. Vincent DePaul, the Opportunity Center, and many others,” said Cable.
   The keys to seniors successfully reentering the workplace are clear in her mind.
   “Seniors need to develop self confidence in their abilities and have a willingness to work. If they qualify and enter our program, treating the training period like it’s a real job will position them well for a paying position with that agency,” added Cable.
   Need more information?
   Resource information for seniors wishing to reenter the workplace:
   Experience Works - Diane Cable
   2158 S.E. College Loop, Suite B
   Redmond, OR 97756
   (541) 548-8196 ext 337
   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
   Oregon Employment Department
   Worksource Oregon, Prineville/Crook County office
   2321 N.E. 3rd Street
   Prineville OR 97754
   (541) 447-8076