Finding a job takes pluck, luck

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Carol Sorgen

When Andrew Der lost his job nearly two years ago, he was, understandably, devastated. "I'd been working professionally for 25 years," said the former director of environmental services for a consulting company in Shady Grove. "I felt horrible."

After the initial shock and blow to his ego wore off, Der, then 55, didn't worry too much about finding another position. A generous severance package gave him a bit of a financial cushion, and he spent about 10 months taking on consulting projects and pursuing his avocation of travel writing.

Knowing, however, that he would need to find a permanent job at some point for the steady income and benefits, Der started making casual inquiries among his many contacts in his field.

Fortunately, one lead turned into — in Godfather parlance —"an offer I couldn't refuse" and he started his new position with a Baltimore City environmental consulting firm late last year.           

Despite the gloom-and-doom reports of the poor economy and the oft-reported difficulty of finding a job, especially for workers on either end of the age spectrum, Der wasn't too concerned that his age was going to count against him.

"Many of my peers with whom I spoke are in my age bracket," he said. "I also had the good fortune of already being known in my industry in Maryland." 

Is age a problem or asset?

Der, who lives in Baltimore, didn't completely ignore the issue of his age, however. Unlike younger applicants who may put their education up front on a resume, Der emphasized his professional experience and left his educational background to the end.

"I figure if they read that far, they would know whether I was a good prospect or not," he reasoned. "I speak from experience, because I hire also for my job, and don't use age as a factor."

While it took him 10 months to find a job, Der thinks that was more because he wasn't mounting an aggressive campaign than anything else.

"I think because I am not 'too old,' my age did not hurt me. But I guess we'll never know," he said.  "What I do know is that some clients and peers viewed the age I am now as more of an asset in bringing experience and wisdom." 

Turns out that Der instinctively did what career guidance experts advise older jobseekers to do. Rick Gillis — author of The Real Secret to Finding a Job? Make Me Money or Save Me Money! — advises the 50+ jobseeker to minimize the impact of age by stating achievements on a resume without giving a date or place.

For example: "I was responsible for 49 percent of all sales, resulting in approximately $3 million to the bottom line."

Not giving dates not only skirts the age issue, but requires the recruiter to call to ask questions, according to Gillis. "Create a dialogue! That is the secret," he said. "Then you are able to express your vitality."

In addition to skipping all dates on a resume (that means your graduation year as well), don't overload the resume with every bit of employment experience. "State your employment history up to [about] 25 or 28 years or so," Gillis advised. "There's no need for more."

Another point you might not have considered, said Gillis: Don't include your home address on your resume. Where you live can tell a recruiter a lot about you.

Network online and off

Like Der, Roberta Greenstein also lost her job to budget cuts a year ago. The former associate director of  a Baltimore nonprofit organization, Greenstein — who had once been a career counselor herself — first coped with her surprise and despair, but then went into career search mode.

"I networked with everyone I knew and even people I didn't know," said Greenstein, who is in her 50s. "I usually had these networking meetings at Starbucks, and there were days where I would visit three different Starbucks," she laughed. It's even funnier considering that Greenstein does not drink coffee or tea. "I drank a lot of hot chocolate!"

In addition to in-person networking, Greenstein made use of niche online search engines such as Idealist.org (she wanted to remain in the nonprofit world), took advantage of the free career guidance services offered to her by her former employer, perused business publications such as the Baltimore Business Journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Chronicle of Philanthropy, and read the newest edition of the perennial best-selling career guidance book,What Color Is Your Parachute?

Three months after she was laid off, Greenstein took a part-time, home-based job as the Mid-Atlantic regional director for another nonprofit organization.

"I thought I'd enjoy the flexibility of working from home, but I realized I really needed to be with other people — and earning a full-time income," said Greenstein.

Her networking efforts continued, and last summer they paid off with a position as a career coach/job developer for a social service agency.

Counteracting age bias

Though Greenstein was ultimately successful in finding a job that "ticked all the boxes" of what she was looking for, the process was daunting.

"I was totally afraid I wouldn't find a job, especially because of my age," said the Columbia resident, pointing out that her computer skills are only "basic."

"I thought employers would see that as a big lack," said Greenstein, who also worried that companies would assume she was planning to retire soon and not be a viable, long-term prospect.

"I never had anyone say anything to me directly," Greenstein recalled, "but there were instances when I felt that people were thinking, 'Why is she still working?'"

On the plus side, Greenstein was able to point out that she is a seasoned professional, no longer has kids at home who get sick or need to be picked up, and is not likely to be moving out of town. "In the big picture, I am a more stable employee," she said.

Whether you've been laid off or simply feel it's time to move on from your present job, it's important to remember that at the moment, it's not easy for anyone to find a job.

That's not meant to discourage you, according to Ralph Raphael, Ph.D., founder and director of the Career Evaluation and Coaching Center in Towson. On the contrary, Raphael advises jobseekers, no matter what their age, not to take the situation personally. "This is a hard time for everyone," he said.

Admittedly, certain fields — such as sales — may carry with them the perception that workers need to be young and full of energy. But on the plus side, older workers bring maturity, responsibility and experience to an employer.

"Those do count for something," said Raphael. "Indeed, they make a big difference in deciding whom to hire. Nobody wants immaturity and inexperience in the workplace."

While it's illegal to discriminate based on age, some older jobseekers may encounter a bias, said Raphael. "You can't make yourself younger," he said, "but there are things you can do to counteract that bias."

For starters, make sure you dress appropriately for your age, but also in a contemporary way. Become familiar with the language and terminology of the jobs you are seeking.

Also familiarize yourself with the new ways that jobs are advertised and applied for. Many openings are posted on company websites, for example, and resumes are submitted online or via e-mail.

Create an online presence for yourself, by posting your resume on job boards that mesh with your job aspirations, or joining online professional networking sites such as LinkedIn.com or ZoomInfo.com.

Highlight your experience

Not everyone looking for a job these days has been laid off. Some, like Christine Stutz, simply felt that it was time to move on. Stutz, the former communications director of a Towson-based nonprofit organization, wasn't actively looking for a new position, but was keeping her eyes open.

A Facebook friend mentioned an opening to her at a national food services company, also headquartered in Towson.

"From the description, it seemed that the company was looking for someone with much less experience," said the 52-year-old Rodgers Forge resident. "But I sent them my resume and a note, and said if they were interested in someone with more experience to get in touch."

They did, and after meeting with Stutz, the company realized how much more she had to offer than the original writing/editing skills they had initially been seeking. In September, she joined the firm as director of communications.

"Just because you may be overqualified for a job, does not mean the job can't be changed," said Stutz. "If you show what you can bring to the table, the job description may very well evolve."

Even before she began thinking of a new job, Stutz made sure she stayed current with the trends and practices in her field, becoming more involved, for example, in social media.

"That's not considered an older person's technology," she said, "but clients are asking about it so I have to be ready to respond."

Though obviously age didn't work against her in getting the job, Stutz admits it is something she is confronted with — if only in her own mind.

"I'm the oldest person in the office," she laughed. "Almost everyone else is in their late 20s or early 30s.

"It has been a bit of a culture shock," she continued. "But I don't think about it much anymore. I'm just part of the team."