Human Resources

Getting a job after 55 may require ‘shifting gears’

State ranks among nation’s worst for older job-seekers.

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Michigan’s struggling labor market is making it difficult for displaced older workers to find gainful employment. Courtesy Thinkstock

LANSING — If you’re 55 or older and hunting for a job, good luck. Michigan is one of the worst states for your employment prospects.

Governing Magazine recently reported data showing nationwide employment-to-population ratios, a common economic measure of what proportion of a state’s eligible working-age population is employed.

Michigan is the third worst in the nation for older workers, just behind Arkansas and West Virginia, at 32.3 percent of residents 55 and older employed.

The report suggested a link between stronger agricultural economies and better employment ratios for older workers. Nebraska has the highest ratio, at 49 percent.

So does that mean Michigan’s poor employment ratio is the result of a struggling agricultural economy?

Not at all, said Jeremy Nagel, media relations specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“That notion just runs contrary to where our state’s agricultural economy is right now,” he said. “We’re incredibly prosperous right now.”

Agriculture is Michigan’s second largest industry, making up almost one-fourth of the state’s jobs, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau. Additionally, the average age of a Michigan farmer is 56, suggesting agriculture contributes favorably to the employment ratio of older workers.

Moreover, the industry keeps growing, Nagel said — five times faster than the general economy.

“Truth is, agriculture has been one of the bright spots in our economy,” he said.

So what else could explain Michigan’s poor employment numbers?

It’s a two-part story, said Charles Ballard, economist at Michigan State University.

“The biggest part of the story is that the whole Michigan labor market is struggling,” he said. “We’re still a full percentage point above the national unemployment rate … at 7.8 percent.”

The second part of the story, Ballard said, is that older workers make up a demographic that’s especially vulnerable when the overall economy struggles.

“If you lose a job at 59 or 62, what are you going to do?” he said. “The notion of going back to college or retraining for a new job makes sense when you’re in your 30s or 40s, but not six years away from when you planned to retire.”

Ballard also said the decline of Michigan manufacturing left many older workers out in the cold. When workers in their 50s and 60s found themselves jobless with only manufacturing skills in hand, many were eligible to withdraw from their 401(k)s or IRAs, or even qualify for Social Security — even when they didn’t want to leave the job market just yet.

“If they’re of average health, most people” prefer to work later into their retirement years, he said. “But if your skills don’t translate to a new job, what else do you do?”

There are some state programs to aid older job seekers, especially those who seek to transition into a new career. One such program is the Michigan Shifting Gears Program, which aims to help older, unemployed professionals translate their skills to a new field.

“The landscape of job searching is so different than what it was, and we’re trying to avoid them going down the résumé black hole,” said Rhonda Pierce, program manager.

The program, subsidized through the Michigan Economic Development Corp., offers mentorship, networking advice and internship opportunities for displaced older workers. The program fee is approximately $500 for participants.

“We’re not a job placement program, but we have had participants even find jobs through their internship opportunities,” Pierce said. “Some have started their own consulting or contracting companies. It’s about connecting them with their passions.”

And although the job market can be discouraging, there’s plenty of talent to spare among older workers, Pierce said.

“This is a generation with commitment and loyalty,” she said. “Employers can benefit from that kind of maturity and wisdom.”

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