As we approach the two-year anniversary of America’s first COVID lockdowns, employers tell us they can’t operate due to shortages in staffing. Business leaders, politicians and the media all tell us that America is facing an unprecedented labor shortage. And yet, America’s labor cupboard is not bare.
Our business leaders have not exhausted all their available resources for hiring—for we know that older workers continue to be discriminated against in hiring, they continue to be underestimated by employers, and they continue to be overlooked in employment recruiting and outreach efforts. It is past time to ensure that our older workers have equitable access to work and job opportunities.
Older workers bring a wealth of experience to their jobs. They are ready and able to work. By 2024, older workers will become the largest single segment of the nation’s workforce. Why are employers not utilizing such a critical resource? How can aging organizations, policy organizations and workforce development organizations work to help ensure that employers fully consider the opportunity older workers offer in hiring?
The Center for Workforce Inclusion Reintegration Efforts
One way that the organization I lead, the Center for Workforce Inclusion (the Center), helps reintegrate older workers into the workforce is through the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), a community service and work-based job training program of the U.S. Department of Labor. SCSEP programs are run by a mix of state agencies and national nonprofit organizations (such as the Center). Participants must be ages 55 or older, unemployed and have a family income of no more than 125% of the federal poverty level. Providing work experience in a variety of community service activities at nonprofit and public facilities, SCSEP serves as a bridge to permanent and unsubsidized employment opportunities.
‘SCSEP serves as a bridge to permanent and unsubsidized employment opportunities.’
Our participant Carl B offers a great example of how SCSEP can work when agencies and employers are ready to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities older workers offer to the American workforce. At age 57 and having just been released from incarceration, he was homeless and had no access to transportation in the middle of a global pandemic. He needed help.
After a short conversation with our partners at Workforce Resource Inc. in Green Bay, Wisc., it became apparent that Carl was a great candidate for SCSEP. He immediately began learning computer skills and taking advantage of on-the-job training. Then Workforce Resource Inc. reached out to other local agencies to help get Carl temporary housing. Carl started job hunting almost immediately, and just two weeks after he enrolled in SCSEP, he had his first interview. While he didn’t get that first job, he persevered.
Less than three months after beginning SCSEP, he was contacted, interviewed, and hired by Grassland Dairy at $16.00 per hour driving a forklift. Carl is now earning enough to cover his bills, do some maintenance on his truck, and start a savings account. This is the sort of opportunity for which SCSEP is known.
But SCSEP can’t be the only tool in our toolbox. While SCSEP focuses on low-income older workers, all older workers face discrimination in hiring and age bias. Hiring managers say 87% of existing employees ages 45 and older perform as well as or better than their younger peers. Yet they also say only 15% of applicants ages 45 and older are a match for open positions.
A similar type of bias is seen in hiring when employers often hire younger workers at lower rates of pay to save on initial salary costs, but fail to consider the savings in time, money and effort that businesses can capture when they hire older workers—who often bring ample experience working on or leading teams, familiarity with general business practices and procedures, and prior job-ready training to their first day of work.
‘Older women are generally hired at lower rates than similar age men.’
Nor is the discrimination in hiring older workers evenly distributed. Older women are generally hired at lower rates than similar age men. Employment data by the AARP Public Policy Institute from November 2021 shows us that even as unemployment rates have declined slightly, the decrease in unemployment rates for men ages 55 and older is four times that of women ages 55 and older. Black workers suffer even greater disparities. A recent report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (Joint Center) offers stark evidence. In August 2021, Black workers had an unemployment rate of 8.8%—more than 3 percentage points higher than the national average.
Retraining, Upskilling and Recruiting Older Workers
Older Workers will have some challenges in the near future—but they are challenges the entire workforce will share. Occupations that will drive our long-term growth will require retraining and upskilling, while traditional workforce development programs have been criticized for not being age friendly. We need to change that today to fully engage our older workers. A recent report by The Economist Intelligence Unit and AARP found that increasing the labor force participation of those age 50-plus would result in a 12% growth by 2050 in both the automotive and technology sectors above their baseline GDPs.
What can we, as employers and advocates, do to recruit and retain older workers? Here are four initial steps:
- First, consider the language used when hiring. Avoid words like “agile,” “savvy” or “fit,” which may signal a preference for younger applicants.
- Second, commit to understanding the performance and skill sets of the different age groups in your company and to valuing the strengths of an intergenerational workplace.
- Third, be mindful of the methods by which you hire. At least 72% of online job applications and resumes are never seen by employers. Make certain that the algorithms used in your online recruiting don’t discriminate against older workers.
- Finally, acknowledge that the ability to learn stays with us as we age. We can and should provide ongoing job training for all employees—both new hires and mid-career workers.
At the Center, we realize that we all—industry, the nonprofit sector, government policymakers and social programs—must make 2022 the starting point for an unprecedented effort to finally fully engage and support older workers in the U.S. workforce. America is strongest when our rich mix of people—citizens and immigrants, workers and innovators, young and old—all work together.
Gary A. Officer is president and CEO at the Center for Workforce Inclusion, in Silver Spring, Md.