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Older and unemployed

Job seekers get help coping with the ‘new normal’

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Corporate recruiter Abby Kohut speaks with one of the attendees at a seminar held Aug. 1 in Whippany sponsored by JVS of MetroWest.
Corporate recruiter Abby Kohut speaks with one of the attendees at a seminar held Aug. 1 in Whippany sponsored by JVS of MetroWest.

 Henry*, who works in finance, expressed neither frustration nor alarm at being suddenly unemployed and seeking work, beginning about six months ago.

“I’m not surprised. This is life in 2013. As you move up the ladder, there are fewer jobs. Companies have consolidated, and that increases the competition,” he said.

The Livingston resident keeps an extremely upbeat and positive attitude, at least in part by volunteering to help himself and others, and by constant networking.

“I’m cochairing my synagogue’s career networking program,” he said, and they’re working with Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest to sponsor events. “I’m willing to take plenty of baby steps and I know that networking, and making connections, is the path to a job,” he said. “I meet people and try to help them. And someone I help will help me.”

As for his attitude, he said, “You have to stay positive and have confidence in yourself. I know there’s an opportunity out there, and I’m working hard to find it.”

Henry was among about 60 people at the most recent job seminar offered by the JVS, held Aug. 1 at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. The featured speaker was corporate recruiter Abby Kohut, author of Absolutely Abby’s 101 Job Search Secrets.

Many of those who had come were in their 50s; all said their job searches would depend on networking, not finding listings on job boards.

In New Jersey, things are particularly bad. Where JVS of MetroWest had 300 cases at the height of the recession, Caren Ford, acting coexecutive director, estimated that the caseload still has over 250 people who are either unemployed or underemployed. And while she said things are picking up for recent college graduates and others, for the over 50 group, the situation is not improving. “What we have now is people cycling in and out of the work force,” said Ford. Because they are more experienced, people over 50 take consulting jobs that last a year, and then they are again unemployed, she said, or they are caught in a “last hired, first fired cycle.”

The majority of people that Sheri Brown, career specialist at Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey, sees are over 50. “It’s much harder for people in the over-50 group to get a job,” she said. “People over 50 are viewed in a certain way. Employers worry about whether they will be able to adapt to new technology and new circumstances. And even if they could, it’s kind of an age bias in our society that carries over into the interviewing process.”

Brown added, “Also, people over 50 have been in the workforce longer, and they make more money. People in their 30s have less experience, make less money, and are seen as more trainable.” Although the economy has improved, she pointed out, and 7.5 percent unemployment looks good — “It’s certainly better than 10 percent” — “it’s still not good. And for people over 50, it’s still crummy.”

What would be good is 4 percent, Brown said, “but people get complacent. Unemployment is not the hot topic it was back in 2009. But an awful lot of people are hurting.”

Lisa of Dover was caught off guard and unprepared for the economic downturn. Now she fears her skill sets mark her as a relic. In her 50s, she started her career as a graphic designer; after 10 years, as computers took over that field, she switched to educational writing as a freelancer.

“The work started drying up two to three years ago,” she said. When she gets an offer, the pay is less than half what she used to earn, and the deadlines are half as long, she said.

“For the first time in my life, I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for,” Lisa said. “I’m having a reckoning. I’m guessing none of us in this room expected to be here five years ago. It’s disorienting. I’ve always known exactly what I wanted to do — first graphic design, then an educational freelancer, and there was constant work, and I was motivated and a hard worker. I’m just surprised. It’s like being on a moonscape. I have to figure out what I can be passionate about, where the jobs are, and what I need to do to get one.”

Another alternative for her is to “make a not-great salary working at a plant nursery or something like that and give up the job search. I feel like I’m on a breakaway piece of ice and I really have to sort out these key issues or I’ll just be drifting that much longer.”

Another participant in the Aug. 1 seminar was David, a media and advertising executive in his 50s who has been looking for work for about a year.

“You have to get away from your computer,” he told NJJN, “You will never find anything on your computer,” he said. “You need to take care of your health so you stay robust and energetic, and the most important thing is networking.”

He belongs to a group in which members support one another, review resumes, and give mock interviews. He said his attitude has shifted completely over the time he has been unemployed.

“When I was first out there, I was fully aware of my credentials and my background, and I thought it was just a matter of time before something came along,” said David.

“But then I realized there is no handout. You have to work at it, especially if you’ve moved through your career effortlessly and had people looking for you based on your reputation.”

Although he does not have the added pressure of supporting a wife or children, David said, he still has to combat depression. He manages emotionally with an attitude he adopted during his years in the corporate world. “Non illegitimi carborundum — Don’t let the bastards get you down,” he said. “You just can’t give in. If you give in, you lose.”

Ford and Brown called depression a major issue for the over-50 group. “As they cycle through, they take on what I call the ‘beaten man’ syndrome,’” with additional issues plaguing their lives, Ford said. “They start to need psychological counseling, they are under tremendous financial pressure, and often they have no medical insurance. In addition, they are not putting anything into their pensions, so there is a long-range impact.”

She pointed out that it is not only the unemployed person dealing with the issues but the whole family as well. “Sometimes clients get so depressed, they can’t go and get a job. Look this is a small percentage of our clients, but for those who are being affected, it’s a major life crisis.”

For David, the biggest takeaway from Kohut’s talk was that there is a solution to every obstacle, even that of being overqualified. According to Kohut, as long as you can offer a reasonable, credible explanation for why the job makes sense for you — beyond being desperate for a job — there’s nothing wrong with being overqualified.

Also attending the seminar was Barbara, a woman from Randolph who is also in her 50s and is in a support group with David, which, she said, is key to helping her cope.

“It takes a village to get a job, and networking is the way to go,” she said.

Formerly a telecommunications engineer with Northern Telecomm, she acknowledged that there is no future in her former profession.

Instead, she’s been looking for a job in customer support or product support since shortly after Hurricane Sandy, and has been disappointed by the job fairs she has gone to, where there are not nearly enough potential employers for the numbers of people who attend. She said speakers like Kohut “are a safety line, especially when you are bewildered at the beginning.”

Now, she said, her biggest challenge is accomplishing the transition to customer support, and “having the confidence and credibility” to get there. Like David, she has no family around her. “That makes it lonelier. Sure, there’s no pressure, but you also don’t have someone there saying, ‘You can do it.’” Like Henry, she turns to volunteering as an outlet and a path to networking. “When you volunteer,” said Barbara, “you get out of yourself a bit and it lifts me up to pay it forward.”

As Kohut finished her presentation, she said to the group, “I really hope I don’t see any of you again.”

*At the request of participants, names of all interviewees have been changed.

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