Panelists suggest employers favor younger workers


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Photo by Emily Nesi |

Maria Heidkamp, left, senior project manager at the Heldrich Center, Susan Sipprelle and Samuel Newman, co-producers of “Set For Life,” reflect on past employment opportunities yesterday at The Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.


College students may worry about the job market as graduation looms closer. But they are better off than many older Americans who are already in the workforce — as shown yesterday at a screening of the documentary, “Set for Life.”

The documentary, presented at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development in downtown New Brunswick, follows the lives of baby boomers who lost their jobs in the Great Recession.

After the film, panelists spoke about issues surrounding aging workers along with the country’s fiscal climate.

“Set for Life,” which won Best Feature Documentary in the 2012 Massachusetts Independent Film Festival, chronicles three middle-aged Americans struggling to make ends meet after they had been laid off following the 2008 recession.

In addition to their financial concerns, the programs available to assist these older adults with reemployment are insufficient, said Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center.

“Our policies for dealing with structural unemployment are 50 to 60 years old and out of date,” Van Horn said. “They don’t fit the economy we have now. There’s a real mismatch between what people need and what is available.”

He said out of those that are unemployed for more than two years, 14 percent receive the education and training to get a new job and half of them foot the bill themselves.

Susan Sipprelle, co-producer of the film, said the lack of organizations has hindered their efforts to support this population.

“We wanted to give a portion of the proceeds for our DVD to a program that we thought was effective for getting older workers back to work,” she said. “We have not been able to find one.”

Maria Heidkamp, senior project manager at the center, said there are only two programs that are targeted at older workers. She said one of them, the Senior Community Service Employment Program, serves just one percent of potentially eligible participants.

“The older 50 to 65-age job seekers are having a pretty miserable time accessing resources through the public system,” Heidkamp said. “They think they’re doing all the right things … and they’re just coming up empty-handed.”

One of the issues is ageism, said co-producer Sam Newman.

“People walking into job interviews after having had phone interviews and seeing their interviewer’s face fall when they see they’re 55 years old — there’s plenty of stories like that,” Newman said.

Heidkamp said younger workers have an advantage compared with older workers.

“When there’s so much emphasis on digital literacy and social media … I think an older worker’s carrying a lot of baggage,” Heidkamp said. “Why would you go with someone who’s 62 when you can get someone who’s 24?”

Employers feel they receive less return on their investment when they hire older workers, Van Horn said.

“We have invested so much money in the first 23 years of life,” Van Horn said. “[But] we spend less than any other advanced economy in the world on retraining and education for adults.”

Sipprelle said one major obstacle for adults is a lack of jobs pertaining to their specific skill set. But measures taken to provide them with new skills to increase their marketability can backfire, she said.

“It’s not easy for a paper mill worker who worked in a paper mill for 31 years to go back to community college and come out a completely different person,” she said. “There’s so many factors that make it difficult for people.”

She described a typical situation in which a major plant closes in a town and private colleges spearhead re-education for the laid-off workers. They may not always try to diversify the offerings — bringing in one large radiology program, for example.

“You’ll have 50 radiologists and maybe only one or two job openings for radiologists,” Sipprelle said.

But, she said, people can rebound from these problems.

“Joe Price … a steelworker from Weirton, W.Va., who has a high school education … and a dial-up Internet connection … figured out how to get retrained, renegotiate his mortgage, continually apply for jobs and got hired,” Sipprelle said. “The natural condition of the human being is resilience.”


By Kristin Baresich

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