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Older workers often struggle to stay in workforce

The San Diego Union-Tribune

September 09. 2018 11:06PM
MTS bus driver Tom Middleton, 66, who had a career as a software engineer, waits at a traffic light on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard in San Diego while driving his route to Escondido on Aug. 22. (HAYNE PALMOUR IV/SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE/TNS)

SAN DIEGO — With a master’s degree in computer science and 30 years of experience working for technology companies, Tom Middleton had little doubt he would soon find new employment after losing his job a decade ago as a software engineering manager at Kyocera in San Diego.

How wrong he was. After two years of submitting more than 300 applications for tech jobs and scoring only an occasional face-to-face interview, the then-59-year-old Middleton became convinced his age was a hindrance. He would hear feedback such as “You’re overqualified” and “We can’t pay you what you’re used to.”

As money grew tighter, house payments were missed and 401(k) savings were exhausted, he took minimum-wage jobs at Target and Walmart and tried his hand at income tax preparation. On a whim, he applied for a job as a bus driver — and was hired, now earning less than half his former six-figure salary.

“I had some days where I just wanted to crawl in a hole,” Middleton, now 66, said of his job search. “I thought I’d be a bargain to someone, but they didn’t see it that way.”

A growing share of baby boomers is opting to work well into what traditionally would be their retirement years, but the challenges of remaining employed or reentering the workforce at an older age, even in today’s tight labor market, haven’t necessarily eased.

And even as Labor Department data show more people 55 and older are employed than ever before and have a lower jobless rate — 3.1 percent, compared with 3.9 percent for all workers — they remain out of work longer than their younger peers when they lose a job. On average, they’re jobless for about 37 weeks, compared with 25 weeks for workers ages 35 to 44, according to 2017 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their hourly pay also starts to decline as they enter their 60s, regardless of how much education they have.

“We are living longer. We are living healthier. We want to work,” said Susan Weinstock, vice president of financial resiliency for the AARP. “We have this labor shortage, and we hear about the skills shortage. Older workers can fill those needs if employers will open themselves up to the idea.”

Lower wages

After 35 years in the construction industry, David Sapper, now 64, said it felt like a “punch in the gut” when he lost his highly paid management job as part of a downsizing seven years ago.

Recognizing he would have to settle for pay well below his previous six-figure salary, he spent nearly a year looking for work before taking a job he hadn’t envisioned for himself — and that pays much less than his old one.

Wage data assembled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta show average hourly pay for full-time workers starting to decline after age 60 across all education groups. Those statistics, though, are only for full-time employees and therefore don’t reflect the part-time work many older workers typically take, either by choice or necessity.

For the last six years, Sapper has been a caravan driver for San Diego Zoo Safari Park, escorting visitors on tours that include close-up views of giraffes, rhinos and antelopes. Since joining the park, he has worked his way up to nearly 40 hours a week, earning $45,000 to $50,000 a year, he said.

Sapper acknowledged that his wife’s job as a school administrator enabled him to take a significant pay cut, but he also said working at Safari Park has meant much less stress in his life.

“I can now finally sleep at night and go to work happy and not be walking through the door dreading how am I going to make up for a half-million-dollar overrun on a construction job,” he said.

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