At a small graduation ceremony in Baltimore this spring, Ronald McDonald handed out diplomas (and spatulas) to 11 new graduates of McDonald's McMasters program -- a new effort to recruit and train older workers 55 and over for jobs in McDonald's quick-service food restaurants.

The two-week training program, initiated with the Baltimore County Office on Aging and the federal Job Training Partnership Act, provides classroom instruction and on-the-job restaurant practice to older workers. Trainees are offered flexible working hours and their choice of preparing Big Macs, dishing up french fries and biscuits, or serving customers.

"It's good business sense to hire older workers," says company spokesman Robert Keyser. "We're a family restaurant and we're looking to the future to build a team spirit between our younger and older employes."

* "I like to be busy," says McMasters graduate Dorothy Hanson, 66, a former cook from Jessup, Md., who had searched for a restaurant job for almost a year. "I believe I had a hard time because of my age -- it wasn't for lack of experience."

Hanson and another grad, Evelyn Stuckey, 58, Annapolis, both work part time at McDonald's restaurants in suburban Maryland. "I love working with young people," says Hanson. "They make me feel right at ease."

McDonald's, the largest fast-food chain in the world, plans to work with Washington-area offices on aging and extend the McMasters program to other restaurants in Maryland and Northern Virginia. "Since April, 20 people have graduated from the McMasters program in this first project, and we see a positive response," says Keyser. "There's tremendous potential in training older workers for all the jobs in our restaurants."

* McDonald's is one of an increasing number of firms beginning to recognize the value of older workers, and in some cases, openly courting them. The corporate experience, say some prognosticators, will be valuable in the future with the maturing of the baby-boom generation and a shrinking supply of younger workers.

With increased longevity and changing social and work patterns, older people are spending more time in retirement. At the beginning of the century, the average worker spent one to two years in retirement. Today, according to a Senate Committee on Aging report, the average worker spends almost 14 years in retirement.

Even though many people take early retirement voluntarily for a variety of reasons, some have to work, at least on a part-time basis.

The Travelers Companies' "Un-Retire" recruitment campaign is one of the best known corporate efforts to hire and train older workers to fill positions that arise from employe vacations, illness and workload peaks. The Travelers program has served as a model for companies developing a part-time labor pool from the ranks of their own retirees.

"In the five years that we have been operating a retiree job bank, the program has been a resounding success," says Donald DeWard, director of personnel services, Hartford, Conn. "We gain experienced and dependable workers -- and retirees gain an option between full-time work, and full-time retirement."

As part of its Older Americans program, Travelers also utilizes the knowledge of company retirees to staff a consumer hot line.

* "I don't have time to work full time," says Travelers retiree Larry Crooks, 67, of West Hartford, Conn., who works in the company's consumer information office three afternoons a week. Retired for four years after 25 years as manager of health marketing services, Crooks also works as a tour guide for the Connecticut State House in Hartford. "Part-time work at Travelers fits my schedule just fine."

In the highly technical research and development area of space and defense projects, the Los Angeles-based Aerospace Corp. retains older valued employes in a "Retiree Casual Program." Retirees 55 and over are hired for a variety of technical and non-technical jobs of less than 1,000 hours per year or 20 hours a week, without loss of health and pension benefits.

Retired engineers and scientists are valued for "corporate memory" important in long-term space engineering projects, according to an Aerospace spokeswoman.

Retail sales have for some time offered options in work arrangements for older employes. As an example, cited by the National Alliance of Business, Washington's Woodward & Lothrop department stores offer flexible work hours on a full and part-time basis.

"We're always looking for older, experienced workers," says Joseph Culver, vice president of personnel. "We've been hiring mature workers for some time -- they're more stable and more credible and can relate to customers better." Forty percent of the store's workforce is over 50 years of age, and they're more and more a target group for employment, according to store management.

A National Alliance of Business study offers these reasons for hiring older workers:

To retain valued employes. Many companies, particularly in the high tech industries, are offering alternative work arrangements to older employes ("gold-collar workers") with hard-to-replace specialized skills, such as scientists and engineers.

*Increase flexibility. Companies have often hired older workers during peak seasons, but more firms are starting to maintain a year-round group of temporary and part-time workers.

Add stability. For companies with a young workforce and high turnover, older workers can provide stability and serve as role models for younger workers.

Build a public image. With increasing attention on aging issues, some companies are recruiting older workers to build a positive image with the public. Firms using older workers may be seen as more socially responsible and employe-oriented.

Attract older consumers. Persons 55 and over account for more than one-fourth of all consumer sales.

*Respond to government policies. Some companies are involved with older workers in response to government programs such as the Job Training Partnership Act and the Senior Community Service Employment Program -- both targeted to serve the needs of low-income, unemployed older workers. Business is becoming increasingly aware of age-discrimination policies on the state and federal level.

But despite the help-wanted signs starting to appear for older workers, age discrimination and unemployment are still serious problems for many older job-seekers.

"Older workers who are unemployed stay out of work longer than younger workers, suffer a greater earnings loss when they do find jobs than younger workers, and are more likely to become discouraged and give up the job search altogether," says a study on retirement and work trends by the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

"The biggest obstacle in the hiring of older workers is the persistent negative stereotype that older persons are not up to the job," says Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate aging committee. "The attributes of workers need to be looked at on an individual basis."

Heinz cites negative perceptions about older workers 55 and over "which are not entirely founded on fact." If older persons are kept up-to-date in training and technology, he says, there is no difference in cost to the employer. "In fact," Heinz says, "replacement costs can be higher."

"Government has an important role to play" in responding to older job-seekers, says the National Commission for Employment Policy in its recent report to Congress. Initiatives such as the Job Training Partnership Act, the Senior Community Service Employment Program, and the U.S. Employment Service have been successful in helping hard-to-place older workers increase their job prospects in industry and public service.

"Innovative programs work best when they serve the self-interest of both the worker and employer," says Steven Sandell, policy analyst with the employment commission.

Operation ABLE of Chicago is cited as one of the the most successful community-based programs for older workers. Supported jointly by Chicago corporations, foundations and government agencies, ABLE (Ability Based on Long Experience) coordinates a network of local and national agencies to train and place older workers in jobs.

"Fifty-five is the speed limit -- not the age limit," says Shirley Brussell, executive director of the program. ABLE operates its own "temp" employment program and works with other agencies to place people in positions ranging from executive to blue-collar jobs. In career counseling, "we teach older people how to market themselves -- such as how to handle interviews and tough questions." ABLE also runs a hot-line to match employers and applicants.

* The program, which serves 5,000 people a year, is a model for similar older worker programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and other cities.

"There is a heightened interest in older workers," says Katherine Lewis, program director. "We see it particularly in the service industries and in small companies that sometimes have the need for extra people."

But despite the encouraging signs for older workers, "Employers are just beginning to scratch the surface in developing new initiatives," according to the National Alliance of Business. "Most firms have not yet come to grips with the changing demographic and workforce realities."