If you are over 50 and find yourself job hunting in our “winded economy” you need to do two things: forget everything you ever learned about job hunting, and hunker down for the long haul. The news stories you see on television about the newly unemployed being quickly assimilated into new jobs because of the labor shortage over the last few years are simply lies, or — at best — just don’t apply to you. And if you have read the article titled “Older workers, your day is coming!” by Barbara Reinhold, you should remember that so are taxes, and so is death, and there is a strong likelihood that both will reach you before a new, good-paying job does.
Due to a series of corporate buyouts and a coup de grace corporate merger, I recently found myself defined as excess baggage with the company in which I had been employed for the last twenty years. I didn’t think to take it personally as there were over 60 of us unemployed in one felled swoop. The company had the decency to give us a severance package (I won’t call it good) which they constantly reminded us that they were under no legal obligation to pay. As if to further relieve their conscious they called in an outplacement firm whose job it was to prepare us in our search for a new career. One of the first things they told us to do was to sit down and inventory all of our skills.
Read Frank’s column, “Dinosaur for Hire” about Kaiser’s similar experiences.
Job Hunting Skills
Hummm…okay…no problem! Let’s see…I have an associate degree in electromechanical technology, a bachelor’s degree in communication, an honorable discharge from the US military. I’m a lifelong learner, computer literate. I’ve written and published over thirty technical articles about various industrial processes and safety compliance. I’m a people person with good public speaking skills. I have over twenty years of experience in industrial management and have always made a conscious effort to be an asset to my employer. The Myers & Briggs test indicates that I am in 5% of the population for leadership abilities. I am driven by a sense of urgency and a desire to get things done. I am a problem solver, and I’m always interested in a new idea. Jeez. I’ll have no problem, right? Wrong!
At 53 years old I find myself with a genetic anomaly. I have the same snow-white hair that my grandfather had. My doctor tells me that it’s either a hereditary trait or a copper deficiency. In either case, he assures me it is not life-threatening. I had always thought that if it was good enough for my granddad, it was damn well good enough for me.
But on one of my very first interviews, I was greeted by a woman interviewer that made the remark, “I know you’re not as old as that white hair makes you look”. I was somewhat taken back by the comment, especially coming from a woman obviously my own age. You could tell because she had dyed, bleach-blond hair and cracking make-up. I expected that she would be appreciative of the fact that I indeed have hair. The comment was made good-naturedly, and I laughed it off in the same humor in which I thought it was uttered. I got a “thank you” letter two days later. Little did I know that it was only a precursor of things to come.
Two hundred and fifty-six hits on my Monster dot-com resume and I finally get my first phone call. It is from a young lady who is the HR manager for a company that goes by an acronym often used by business guru Tom Peters. After having to explain to her what an acronym was, I mentioned that I was a big fan of Tom Peters.
“You know Tom Peters?” she asked.
“Well, I don’t really know him. But I’ve read several of his books and I’ve heard him speak on several occasions.”
“Tom Peters speaks publicly?”
“Why…yes,” I said.
“Look, can you come in tomorrow afternoon for an interview?”
By this time I am three-feet off the floor with excitement. Never underestimate the power of dropping a big name or telling someone you have recently read a book.
The next afternoon I jumped into my best snug fitting suit, dusted off my briefcase, and ran out of the house to interview. I arrived on time. The receptionist had me sit in the lobby while she got the HR manager. The HR manager came in and greeted me with this quizzical look on her face. She gave me an application to fill out and asked me to wait. I waited for twenty minutes.
During this time I could see her run into the office next to hers. A guy comes out with a piece of paper in his hand, walks over to the copy machine by where I was sitting, turns his head over his shoulder to study me carefully, then picks up his copies and walks back to the office. The two of them then tiptoed over to the office of the company president. The president walked out with a piece of paper in his hand, studied me carefully as he walked to the copy machine, made copies, then picked up his copies and walked back to the others in his office. They seemed to be having an emergency meeting.
Finally, the HR lady walks out and invites me into her office. I sat there for ten minutes listening politely to how she started in the plant and worked her way up to HR manager in just 5 short years, and how she and her husband and two children had just gotten back from a vacation in Jamaica and she really hadn’t had the time to prepare any real questions for me. She was sorry about that but…
“Do you have any questions?” I heard her say.
“Questions…that’s it…that’s the interview?” I thought to myself. As I fumbled through my bag of most intelligent questions to ask in an interview, I come up with one, but I don’t remember if I asked it or not. I got a thank you letter two days later.
I later found out that the CFO for that company, the first guy who came out to look at me as he made copies, is named Tom Peters. The HR manager thought it was he to whom I was referring when I said I had heard Tom Peters speak. Apparently, she was looking to make some points, but he assured her he had no idea who I was. It seems that the whole incident was the joke of the office for over a week. I was glad that I could add a little levity to someone’s life but I still need a job.
I mention these interviews simply to point out that, if you are over fifty and searching for a new career, you are about to enter a weird-zone situated somewhere between theater of the absurd and a comedy of errors. My advice…brush-up on reruns of Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone.
If you are looking for help from employment agencies, forget it. Agencies are in business to make money. If their client is looking for an energetic, innovative (read young) engineer who can work in a fast paced environment, the agency certainly is not going to send a recently unemployed, portly, slightly balding, gray-haired gentleman regardless of whether or not you invented the Internet.
You could be a brilliant lifetime member of Mensa interviewing on a speedball of Ginkgo/B12 and two bars of chocolate, but the odds are you are not going to be placed by an agency! If you do beat the odds, you will find yourself working for a third of your normal salary. Of course, the client is going to want to look at you for a while to see if you “fit in” with their no-sense-of-urgency-fast-paced environment, so you will be working under a contract where the agency sold you off at a bargain rate while they stuff their pockets with a cool 30% of your hourly wage. I think we fought a war over something like this at one point in our history.
There is something really strange going on in the area of reference checking. I can’t really explain it. It seems that everyone wants them, but few actually check them. I personally don’t like to give my references unless an offer is on the table, but some interviewers insist, and the last thing you want to do is argue with a potential employer.
The ruse seems to be that the interviewer asks for the references because you are one of the “top three” candidates for the position. They never actually check because, of course, the top candidate always takes the position, and it wasn’t you. My guess is that this is simply a protectionist tactic in case you file a complaint with the EEOC. I also think that HR managers have their minds made up the moment they meet you, and the rest of the time is spent rationalizing why they won’t hire you. So much for getting all the facts before making good, sound, business decisions.
Agencies like to get references upfront and early because it allows them to add to their call list. Just because you are over 50 doesn’t mean that you aren’t using a 30-something materials engineer with an advanced degree in bio-ceramics and six years experience in metallography as a reference…get the picture? Agencies check your references thoroughly, even when they don’t have anyone interested in you. There is no reason to change the rules, especially when you can add to their inventory of warm, young bodies to sell.
One of the earliest pieces of advice I got from the outplacement people was to nix the spot on my resume mentioning military experience. Of course, I stood my ground like any good patriot and suggested they were all a bunch of communists, but the truth is that in the real world of job-hunting your military experience could be a liability. Veterans of the Cold War/Vietnam era may not be seen as the pot smoking, hooch burning, baby killing, Uncle Sammy’s we were made out to be in the 60s and 70s. But, you will find that it raises many questions about your ability to function in a chain of no command in which there is only one link, the interviewer’s link. Self-discipline, team playing, and a do-or-die attitude are not strong selling points in today’s job market.
The real Tom Peters is fond of saying that America is in a war for talent! It seems that we are confusing talent and youth. Talent comes in all ages, shapes, colors, and sizes, but youth is defined within a very narrow band.
False Labor Shortage
Over the last few years of our inflated economy, American business has convinced our representatives in Washington, DC that there is a labor shortage crisis in this country. This (along with megabucks in political contributions) has led to the passage of Senate Bill 2045, otherwise known as H-1B. The H-1B Bill authorizes the importation of 195,000 indentured foreign workers. They’re mostly from India and Asia, but many are from Europe and Russia also. All are allowed into our country every year. Over 671,000 have been admitted since 1995. American based businesses and international businesses operating within our shores have found H-1B a convenient, and legal, way to circumvent America’s EEOC laws. It allows them to pay lower wages, by-pass unions, and ensure a steady stream of cheap, youthful labor.
Downsized and Replaced
The company with which my “downsized” company was combined had a disproportionate number of Russian engineers. At one meeting the president of the recipient company had bragged that he had over twenty Russians that damn near worked for free! Well, I can tell you this. The “rooskies” may have my job and be living my portion of the American dream. But by gosh, I helped kick their butts in the cold war! It can never be said that I’m not someone who will do whatever it takes to win.
The real Tom Peters is also fond of predicting that CEOs of companies will become more involved in the hiring process. He seems well aware of how much talent is turned away from the HR manager’s revolving door. He suggests that it is insane for companies to allow neophyte HR managers. They’ve never played on a team or had to choose the team on which the company’s future depends. I hope he’s right. I hope someone, other than me, reads his book pretty soon.
As for myself, I’m down to a technique called shotgun sales to market myself. Shotgun sales are where you throw as much stuff against the wall as you possibly can. You hope that something sticks long enough for you to pick it off. It is not very efficient or effective, but it makes an honorable act of desperation.
A friend of mine, also in his fifties, called me the other day. He sounded depressed, had just been laid off, and asked me if I had any advice. I told him to drop back to the one-yard line and punt. Hey, it was the best I could come up with.
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