Older workers face challenges in D.C. job market

Frances China needed to learn how to use a computer.

So the 57-year-old woman from Northwest Washington turned to the best option she had: her grandson Jilani. The 11-year-old helped her create a PowerPoint presentation and learn about the machinations of Microsoft Office.

Graphic

An age breakdown of the District's unemployed
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An age breakdown of the District's unemployed

In the process, Jilani demonstrated the stark skills gap facing older workers like his nana. “He’s my tutor,” China said.

The divide between China and her grandson underscores the challenges facing older unemployed workers in the District and elsewhere as they try to find a place in an economy that has been slow to create jobs in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Elected in 2010, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray campaigned on a pledge to reduce the District’s high unemployment rate. His One City One Hire initiative, announced in September, is intended to link 10,000 D.C. residents with jobs within a year.

So far, though, the program has struggled to reach older workers, who often lose out to younger workers in a city where the jobless rate is 9.9 percent and competition for work can be stiff.

“The biggest problem is having to compete with the younger generation for the same pool of jobs,” said Tomiko Thomas, program manager for the D.C. Office on Aging’s Older Workers Employment and Training Program.

For the 12 months ended in February, the District’s unemployment rate for men 55 and older was 7.6 percent, and the rate for women 55 and older was 9.2 percent, according to unpublished U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data provided to The Washington Post by the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

Younger workers often have the college degrees and technical skills necessary to get a job in today’s economy, experts say, and they have a higher tendency to stay in a job longer, rather than retiring after a few years.

Now, the city’s Department of Employment Services is focusing special attention on “mature” workers, beginning with a recent employment screening event at the agency’s new headquarters on Minnesota Avenue NE.

On a Friday morning last month, 200 job seekers perused leaflets advertising jobs in industries such as food service, administration, health care and hospitality.

Rodney Smith, 56, was among those hoping he could gain an edge in landing a job.

Attending events that aren’t targeted to older workers is “not an advantage at my age,” said Smith, who has experience in several industries, including food service and construction.

Smith, who lives in Southeast Washington, was at the screening event searching for a job that would allow him to work and continue his education.

“At my age, I’m willing to try anything but construction again,” he said, sitting bolt upright in a striped blue suit he had borrowed.

Smith and the other job seekers waited quietly in rows of folding chairs for their turn to meet with an agency worker for help editing their resumes and to discuss the next step — attending the actual job fair at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library the following week — if the agency worker felt the seeker’s skills matched an employer’s needs.

Jake McQueen, 62, was one of those cleared for the job fair after an official scribbled some suggestions onto his resume, including adding an e-mail address and better describing his work experience.

“I’ll be there, with a new and improved resume,” McQueen said of thejob fair, where he hoped to land a psychiatric technician job.

But after the job fair at the library, McQueen, who lives in Southeast Washington, said he was “very disappointed” and felt misled by the pre-screening event.

He said he was told that there would be supervisors at the fair to conduct interviews and possibly hire him on the spot. McQueen said he instead received brochures and giveaway pens and was directed to apply online.

“I think that was like, a publicity stunt,” McQueen said. “I could do better on my own.”

James Moore, a deputy director and the chief economist at the employment services agency, said such events are part of a process and that employers might not have hired workers immediately at the job fair.

The agency will continue to work with job seekers to help them find employment, Moore said. “Overall, the event was a success,” he said. “We knew going in that it’s a tough labor market.”

In recent years, the Department of Employment Services has seen its share of management problems, both in the current administration and the previous one. The agency’s first director under Gray left the post after three months, after being linked to two personnel controversies in the mayor’s new administration.

The current director, Lisa Mallory, took over last year after nearly three decades in the private, public and nonprofit sectors, and she has taken steps to improve the agency’s operations.

Mallory said many older workers are trying to re-enter the workforce or stay in it longer. As life spans increase and living costs rise while the economy falls, older workers are unsure their retirement savings can hold out. But Mallory said she didn’t believe older workers face more problems than workers of any other age.

“They’re not faring any worse as a group than others,” Mallory said.

Unemployment is a national issue, and the District is facing the same challenges as cities across the country, Mallory said. “A lot of it is the economy,” she said. “It’s a nationwide challenge and a real problem.”

But experts say the District presents unique obstacles for older workers.

“Any sort of typical competitive disadvantage an older worker might face anywhere . . . are amplified in D.C.’s highly competitive job market,” said Ed Lazere, executive director for the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which studies budget and tax issues in the District.

“Because we have such a talented labor force, the people with the highest degrees and the most advanced skills” are most likely to get a job, Lazere said. “For everyone else, it’s just really hard.”

Often residents with college degrees can’t find work in their fields, so they turn to jobs for which they’re overqualified, Lazere said. That leaves the less-educated segment of the workforce scrambling.

In an analysis of 2010 census data, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute found that the District has the third-highest level of income inequality among cities across the country. This disparity contributes to a higher unemployment rate overall in the city, Lazere said.

Of the 212 people 55 and older who registered with employment services earlier this year, 43 percent had a high school diploma or equivalent, 28 percent had some college experience and 21 percent held an associate’s, bachelor’s or masters degree.

Even those with college degrees are finding it difficult to get back into the job market, said Thomas of the Office on Aging, which typically serves 400 to 500 people each year.

The biggest increase he’s seen during the past two years is among retired professionals looking for white-collar work, which is often more challenging to find.

But they’re not alone in the search for white-collar work. Younger people are looking for those jobs, too, Thomas said.

China took it upon herself to stay afloat after failing to find a job in human resources. Two years ago, she began a small baking business.

“At this age, I had to reinvent myself,” China said. “And that’s how I’ve been surviving in this madness.”

Her business has succeeded with its $15-to-$18 cakes, but she’s still looking for a human resources job. This time, it’s to allow her baking business to grow.

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed research to this report.

 
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