The Dallas Morning News (MCT) - This recession has beaten down many older workers and retirees. Sylvester Barron picks them up, dusts them off and helps the unemployed find jobs.
"Once people feel as though they're needed again, it's a whole new day," he said. "They're no longer sitting at home in front of the TV and wondering whether tomorrow will be any different from today. Suddenly, they have hope."
Barron runs the North Dallas office of the AARP Foundation's Senior Community Service Employment Program, a federally funded job-training program for unemployed, low-income workers 55 and older.
Ladell Ferrell landed a part-time job at a Salvation Army resale store in Dallas thanks to the program. Without his $800 monthly pay, he said he couldn't meet all of his household expenses on the $900 he gets from Social Security. The 69-year-old Dallas resident started at the store as a temporary worker and quickly mastered the basics of the retail trade. His dependability and enthusiasm for his work earned him a permanent position.
"I never forget how fortunate I was to get this job," Ferrell said. "I'm one of the few people who can say I'm not worried about being laid off. With the economy in bad shape, the store has been busier than ever."
His supervisor, Lawrence Johnson, said all of the older employees at the resale store have a strong work ethic.
"When I assign them a task, they get it done on time, if not sooner, and as requested," he said. "I only wish everyone had those work habits."
This recession is proving especially hard on older adults, labor analysts say.
The national unemployment rate for Americans 65 and older reached 6.8 percent in February, the highest level recorded for that age group since the government began computing reliable rates 61 years ago for those who are seeking work.
About 433,000 older adults were out of work and looking for employment in February, more than twice the number just before the recession.
"In past downtowns, older workers simply retired if they got laid off," said Richard Johnson, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute. "This time, they can't afford to drop out of the workforce. They need a job to make ends meet."
The market has wiped out trillions of dollars in retirement accounts, traditional pensions with guaranteed benefits are fading fast, and Social Security's early-retirement benefits are less generous than they once were, he said.
As if that weren't bad enough, Johnson said, laid-off workers 55 and older remain unemployed for an average of six months, a month longer than workers 25 to 54. When they do find a job, they get paid an average of 26 percent less than before.
Many of the older adults who seek Barron's help at the AARP Foundation have been looking for months. They have exhausted their own contacts and job leads and now want to tap into the job-training program's network.
"They tell us that their Social Security or annuity checks aren't enough," he said. "They must have a paycheck, too."
Barron's staff interviews new clients and, depending on need, refers them to free computer classes, resume-writing services and job-interviewing courses. Those on their last leg get referrals for food, rent and utility assistance.
Most important, the staff tries to match a client's skills with one of the training slots the program funds at 54 nonprofit community agencies and government offices throughout Dallas County, Barron said.
The recently approved economic stimulus package will add 48 training slots to the current 236 in Dallas County, he said.
Applicants generally must have household incomes below 125 percent of the federal poverty level _ about $18,213 a year for a couple. But different sources of income are counted in different ways. Only 75 percent of Social Security income, for example, is counted.
The work assignments are for 18 hours a week and pay the $6.55-an-hour minimum wage. The pay may be low, but the positions give older workers the chance to gain experience, sharpen their job skills and look for something permanent.
While clients are on their training assignments, the program's staff sends them job leads. Some land permanent jobs only days after they start with a nonprofit or government agency. Others may take as long as a year.
Nancy Bannister, 70, of Garland, Texas, had been out of a job after a hip replacement and didn't know how to get back to work. That's when a friend suggested she apply to the AARP Foundation program for help.
"At first, I was intimidated by the prospect of returning to the business world and working alongside people half my age," she said. "But the program made me realize I still had a lot to offer prospective employers."
Bannister had been an event planner for businesses earlier in her career. So Barron's staff thought she'd be a good fit at the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority, the nonprofit agency that runs the trolleys in Uptown.
There, she learned every detail of the business operations over the next six months and parlayed her training assignment into a permanent job as business manager. She handles trolley charters, parties and tours.
Her office assistant, 62-year-old Sue Griffin of Dallas, is another graduate of the AARP Foundation program. The transit authority hired her part time after she completed her training last fall.
"As a child, I was raised to put two hours of effort into every hour on the job," she said. "I love it here."
Barron said 56 people with training assignments found permanent jobs through his office last year. Some, like Ferrell, Bannister and Griffin, get hired by the nonprofit groups where they train, but many go to work at a business.
The AARP Foundation runs the federally funded Senior Community Service Employment Program in Dallas County.
Nationally, the program serves 80,000 older adults, a small fraction of the people who could benefit from it, Johnson said.
Though the new economic-stimulus law contains money for the employment program to train another 24,000 older workers through June 2010, Congress could do more to help laid-off seniors, he said.
"The program targets seniors on low incomes, but it needs to include those with moderate incomes, too," Johnson said. "If we tell older people they should work longer, shouldn't we help them do that?"
A bigger investment in job training and employment services for older workers would improve their chances for a secure retirement, he said.
At the program's North Dallas office, the clients have no plans of slowing down anytime soon and tell Barron they intend to work into their late 60s or early 70s.
"Employers needn't fear they're hiring short-timers," he said. "These are folks who will stick around. All they need is a chance."
TIPS FOR OLDER JOB-SEEKERS
_If you've just been laid off, take a couple of weeks if you can to clear your head. Concentrate on developing a job-search strategy. If you have to, take a part-time job to generate income.
_Once you start looking, spend four to six hours a day on your search. But vary your day. Research an industry for an hour, research employers for an hour, then do some networking with calls or e-mails.
_Being out of work is a good time to get in shape. Visit the gym, take a walk or go for a run. You'll feel better and make a better impression when you meet interviewers.
_Get a cellphone so that you can respond quickly to employers.
_Don't think your years of experience will get you a job. In resumes and interviews, translate that experience into specific skills and accomplishments required for the job you're seeking.
© 2009, The Dallas Morning News.
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