Writing for the Rocky Mountain News, columnist Gene Amole penned a story titled "Experience a curse for some job-seekers," emphasizing the plight of the highly-experienced, usually over-40 job hunter. If you missed Gene's column, look here. I took issue with the direction of the column, because I've always been a believer that everyone is employable. This is my response to his article, which I sent to him by e-mail. —Bill Frank  

  TO: Gene Amole, the Rocky Mountain News
FROM: Bill Frank, President/CEO, CareerLab®

Dear Gene,

I'm responding to your column, "Experience a curse for some job seekers." It's easy to feel sorry for those out of work, especially when they're older, particularly when they've given 20 or 30 years to their employers. It's tempting to feel sorry for them when they seem to have been victimized by cold, cruel, big corporations, nameless bureaucracies, and by society itself.

W.C. Fields said, "I'd rather have two girls at twentee-one each, than one girl at four-tee two." Today most large corporations feel the same way. They'd rather have two 20-something $50,000 engineers than one 45-year-old at $100,000.

But so what? Big corporations are actually small employers in the grand scheme of things. Fifty-somethings should look eleswhere.

I have an unusual perspective on unemployment. I've been a career planner in Denver since 1978. I've spent more than 20,000 hours counseling job hunters, and the company I founded has provided outplacement assistance to more than 350 U.S. companies, both large and small.

Most of our clients are over 40. Indeed, the majority are 50-somethings, some are 60. And on any given day, we're conducting 75 job hunting campaigns all at once.

All our over-40 clients find jobs—even the poorest qualified. What gives? How can they be so lucky? How do we explain the plight of the underemployed newspaperman in your column?

I've worked with dozens of 50-somethings who've been out of work for a year, 18 months, even two years before they finally sought me out. I've helped them all get jobs—none are still unemployed. What do these cases have in common?

If we look under the surface at your newspaperman, or at the other unfortunate 50-somethings, we find a consistent, disturbing pattern. Those who complain loudest:

  • Have let some of their important skills lapse
  • Did good work on the job, but not great work
  • "Yes, but" any helpful suggestion you make
  • Are looking for another job exactly like the one they left
  • Have a sense of entitlement and wouldn't consider working for less than they think they're "worth"
  • Have a long laundry list of things they won't do
  • Are immobile. Would not consider relocating across the country—or even across town—for the right job
  • Have not attempted part-time, temporary, or volunteer work
  • Are often still wearing clothes they purchased in the mid-70s
  • Have weak or non-existent computer skills
  • Are bitter, or cynical, about their former employer(s), the economy— everything
  • Dwell on stories of what the company did to harm them
  • Are over-impressed with their own worth
  • Use want ads as their primary job hunting method—a big mistake—since that's where their greatest competition lies.
  • Apply and re-apply to brand-name corporations that don't hire over-40s

Quoting your colunn, they think the "all-american dream has given them the shaft." They feel shafted, and they act shafted. That's a large part of the problem—they act shafted, and communicate a sour-grapes attitude no one wants to be around.

In short, they have not remained agile. They are old, but not because of age. They are old primarily because of attitude. This pattern is a problem—a big problem. Prospective employers can smell it a mile away.

My success in turning these folks around has nothing to do with the economy or job market, or the viability of their particular industry. We do some of our best work in industries that are crashing and burning: oil & gas and savings & loans in the mid-80s, for example. Healthcare, today.

The approach is actually pretty gentle and soft, because depressed, dejected candidates don't need more rejection and humiliation. They need support and encouragement.

The process goes something like this:

We look at their likes and dislikes—what's worked especially well for them. We employ standardized testing and assessment to determine their work temperament, interests, and personality factors. We brainstorm new contexts where their skills might be needed.

What about the newspaperman? Good writers—excellent writers—are hard to find. Freelance writing for corporations might be an avenue. How about corporate research? Or editing? Ghostwriting? The list goes on and on. Part of the fun is showing these folks the dozens of places they can apply their skills.

I challenge their negative victim attitude. If appropriate, I show them the role they played in their own demise and in their own continued unemployment. [Motivate yourself here.]

Often I ask questions like these:

  • "If the company was so bad, why did you stay 18 years?"
  • "If you were so unhappy, why didn't you leave?"
  • "Wouldn't it be better to have fifty dollars a week than no dollars a week?
  • "Do you have a friend in business who could use your help as a volunteer for a few hours a week?"

I get them working part-time, as a temporary (executive), or on contract. I help them land consulting assignments. Or I get them to volunteer using the skills they love. I show them that some employment is better than no employment. I get them networking and talking to friends, renewing old friendships, attending organizational meetings. We broadcast their resumes to executive recruiters. Often, we help them purchase a computer and teach computer skills. We plug them into the Internet.

I remind them that we all have a contribution to make in the world, but we have to figure out what the world needs now, not what it needed 23 years ago. Then we have to figure out where we can begin, taking small steps.

As you know, Gene, the world is a hurting and needy place. There are problems everywhere to be solved. But there is a shortage of innovative problem solvers, people willing to take small steps to make things better. That's where opportunity lies.

Small jobs lead to bigger jobs, and soon these candidates are doing two or three part-time or contract assignments. Often one of the part-time jobs rolls up into a full-time offer. Or if not, word of a person's work and word of mouth produces offers elsewhere.

I've never had a 50-something client remain unemployed for more than a few months. (An average job hunt is three to six months.) And they don't work in liquor stores or at Sam's Club. They work in jobs they like at pay comparable to what they once earned.

Lucky? I don't think so. All of us have skills and gifts to contribute. Depressed 50-somethings need to abandon their anger at their old bosses, old employers, their spouses, the economy, the young MBAs, friends who've let them down— and concentrate on the remarkable contribution they can make today. That's the secret so many bitterly-complaining 50-somethings are missing.

So, what can we do for your friend, the newspaperman? Perhaps I could help him, and you could turn our work together into a newspaper story—a success story to inspire and motivate the other underemployed 50-somethings who are home watching Oprah.

Would we be successful? You bet. The world is a hurting and needy place. Someone out there is desperate for your friend's writing, researching and editing skills. But we've got to hurry. They need him badly. Perhaps they're trying to get a new blood salvage unit on the market to save lives. Perhaps their approval before the FDA is pending, and there's no one to summarize their research findings in understandable English. And time is running out.

Let me know what you think, Gene. If I can help in any way, I'll be glad to try.

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