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Seniors struggle to bounce back into the work force after losing their jobs to the recession

At age 69, Mario Gutierrez arrives at the Pepsi Bottling facility at 5 a.m. and ends his work day about 12 hours later. By the time he heads home, he has visited about a half-dozen customers, buying one a cup of Cuban coffee or chatting with another about his or her sales. Although traditional retirement age was four years ago, for Gutierrez it's not even in his near-term vision.

"I feel satisfied," Gutierrez says.

In many workplaces during the last year, older workers haven't fared as well as Gutierrez, a 40-year veteran of the Pepsi system who still receives company awards for performance. In workplaces of all sizes, many older workers are the first to get the ax, mostly because of their higher salaries and health care costs.

As a group, they are finding it most difficult to rebound from unemployment. The number of unemployed workers ages 55 to 64 has nearly tripled since the recession began, to about 1.6 million of the nation's 15.4 million unemployed as of November, according to the Labor Department. These job seekers say it is even more difficult to find work because of what they see as age bias.

But demographers insist older workers represent the future of the labor force. According to 2009 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people age 55 and older in the labor force is expected to increase by 43 percent by 2018. Can and will workplaces accommodate increasing ranks of older workers? For now, they don't have to, because unemployment is so high.

"Employers haven't felt the pain yet," says Kathy Lynch, director of employer engagement at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. "But the demographics are the facts."

Recently, more than 44 medium and large employers participated in an interactive remote meeting organized by the Sloan Center. The organizers discovered most companies recognize the potential impact but don't consider the aging work force a top priority. But there is awareness, Lynch says.

"Awareness is good because you can't have action until there is awareness."

Lynch says ignoring the aging work force will affect employers differently. For some, it might result in a disconnect with an aging customer base. For others, it might lead to a talent shortage or exacerbate a knowledge transfer issue.

Smart companies recognize the advantages of a multigenerational work force. At Miami's Pepsi Bottling facility, about 30 of the 200 workers are 60 or older.

Paula Hopkins, regional sales director, says she has seen why companies need a blend. Her younger sales workers carry BlackBerrys that they use to call stores like Walmart. Her older workers, like Gutierrez, build deep-rooted relationships by being visible in the Hispanic community and create loyalty from the smaller grocery chains. "They both have the same passion for the customer."

Some employers are figuring out how to make the aging work force work for them. Knowing that older workers would want seasonal jobs, Phil Clark, president and CEO of Miami-Dade County Fair and Exposition, hires seniors as ticket takers, ticket sellers or security during the 18 days the fair is open each spring. "Our oldest worker is 88," Clark says. "They are great employees. They are punctual, they're dedicated, they have a strong work ethic, some of them have been working for us for 20 years."

Of course, seniors still battle the perception that they are outdated, more expensive and difficult to terminate. "We see that older workers are bypassed for training opportunities because of myths that older people can't learn new things," says Sara Czaja, a professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and co-author of Aging and Work.

Ultimately, the impact of technology will affect all age groups. Renee Ward, founder of Seniors4Hire.org, says the recession has changed the attitudes of older workers. "I see seniors taking initiative to retrain themselves."

In Miami, Barry Johnson, chief executive officer of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, says he wants to help older workers network too. Many of his older members have been downsized or are confronting a gray ceiling, limiting their advancement at work. "A lot of them have experience but skills that are no longer relevant." Johnson says the chamber likely will create a task force or a networking group to help these workers.

In the near future, Czaja says, employers will accommodate the increasing number of older workers through the work/life benefits traditionally requested by young parents — flexible schedules, telework arrangements, contract work. She believes keeping older people productive over the next decade is crucial to a strong economy. "We need to prepare for it."

Seniors struggle to bounce back into the work force after losing their jobs to the recession 01/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 1:19am]

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