I always like to begin with definitions. So the first question should be what constitutes an “older” worker? And the second should be, what do we mean by “long-term” unemployed? As far as I am concerned, if you think you are “old,” you are “old.” And if you think you have been unemployed “long-term,” you are one of the “long-term” unemployed. Why? Because it is a matter of attitude.
If you have not had to look for a job, prepare a resume, interview, etc. since Bush Senior was in the White House, or if you have been looking for a job since the day after President Obama was reelected, you are probably scared and frustrated and intelligent enough to know that being scared and frustrated are not qualities that lead to success. So in either case you have to defeat your own worst enemy which is you!
You need confidence. Understand that older (I think it’s time to remove the quotation marks!) workers think that they can’t compete with younger workers or, to be more correct, job applicants. I have news for you: Younger job applicants think that they cannot compete with older applicants because they lack the experience, the practical knowledge and the contacts. It goes both ways!
So how do you get confidence? There’s only one way that I know that works and that is by having some successes. Start off small. Since the vast majority of jobs are not advertised, you have to network. Learn how to do it. It’s not difficult. It’s an art, not a science. Just remember, it’s also a marathon and not a sprint because networking is building relationships not exchanging business cards.
So set a goal which is reasonable. You are going to go to an event with professionals in your industry, or in the industry or profession in which you want to work, and you are going to get one person to agree to meet with you over a cup of coffee to discuss their work. Then you will do it again. Before you know it, you’ll have a quality network of new trusted associates, who will be able to help you. (These are called “informational meetings.” The goal is to lead to practical introductions.)
But that is not enough. You also need help. This does not mean going to a smooth talker who calls him or herself a “coach,” and paying them $100 a session to teach you things you can learn in an hour. It means finding someone you trust. It can be a professional but it can also be a true friend. Why the emphasis on “true?” It will have to be someone who will look you straight in the eyes and tells you that you are wrong, you are acting like an idiot, who, in other words, will be brutally honest with you.
In addition to networking in the real world, you also have to network in the virtual world and LinkedIn is the best place to be. It is the professional social media site. Quick comparison: The latest statistic I have found, and it dates back to 2014, is that the average LinkedIn member has 930 first-degree connections. The current average number of followers someone has on Twitter is only 208.
You want employers to come to you. You don’t want to have to run after them. So you need to create a brand. I have a video on this topic. It’s free and there is no sales pitch. Watch it! But for present purposes the key is to do what I am doing right now, writing a post on LinkedIn. Once I click “publish” I will go do something and come back 10 minutes later and discover that it has already been read. That’s a good feeling. I have not done the math recently, but while some of my posts have been read tens of thousands of times, usually it’s only a few hundred. It really does not matter. It’s not how many people read your posts, it’s who reads them.
And don’t forget to comment on other people’s posts, as well as their updates and photos. That will also help to establish your brand.
But my point is this: Seeing that people are reading your posts will tell you that your opinion matters, that your intelligence and experience are valued. And this is especially the case if they “like” the post and comment on it. Even a negative comment means the person thinks your opinion matters. What better way to gain, or regain, your confidence and improve your attitude?
Worries About Older Workers
Let’s focus now on older workers. What are some of the concerns employers may have – or you think they may have – about hiring you?
You won’t last. Makes sense. You have been working for the past 30-40 years. Why would they think you would take the job they are looking to fill seriously and why would you want to stay more than a couple of years, if that? In other words, they are going to be concerned that they will not get a proper return on their investment of time and money training you for the job.
There are a number of ways to deal with this concern. The one I have found most effective, if it is true, is to have my career counseling clients say in an interview, “I noticed on the LinkedIn profiles of some of your staff that they have been with you for a long time and that you promote from within. That’s what I am looking for.” You say that in response to the question, “Why do you want to work here?” Younger applicants will use the opportunity to praise and compliment. Not you! You will use it to emphasize the practical aspects of working for the company. Point you!
If I hire you, you will replace me. If you are an older worker, it is safe to assume that the person interviewing you will be younger and less experienced. It is only natural that they will think that the boss could fire them, hire you for less, and have you do their job.
This one is also easy to address. (And, for the record, no interviewer is going to raise any of these concerns. You have to address them in the way you answer seemingly unrelated questions.) Focus on the individuals you have helped grow in their careers, whether as a formal mentor or just as a colleague. Talk about the satisfaction in seeing them succeed and grow and what that has meant for you. And, so that they know you are not just saying what you think they want to here, end with, “And I can even provide one or two as references.”
Overqualified. Overqualified means that they think you are going to be bored. They are not big enough for you. You’ll leave. And this is a tough one if you are applying for a job you saw advertised. It is not as big an issue if you are interviewing for a job you heard about, and were recommended for, through networking. In that case, the boss knows your qualifications and wants to be convinced.
The first thing you should do is to carefully read the job description. If it says “2-3 years’ experience” and you literally have ten times that amount, you are wasting your time. It is not going to happen. If it says “over 10 years’ experience,” you have a shot.
This does not mean that you should not contact the “2-3 years” employer. As a recruiter I have had clients (employers) ignore the “years requirement” because of the quality, or lack thereof, of the candidates that were, on paper, “qualified.” But there is a way to apply for these jobs that does not make you look foolish.
If you apply for a job for which you have ten times the experience the employer wants, as stated, you don’t have a chance and you will look foolish. So write to the HR department, pretending that you do not know about the position. Simply say that you want to introduce yourself, focus on one highlight of your career, attach your resume, and let them know that you will appreciate it if they contact you if anything should become available at their company. Let them decide, don’t do it for them.
Can’t be trained. The impression is that you have been doing it, whatever “it” is, the same way for the past 20 years and that you will not be able to learn the new company’s way. The solution: When answering questions, talk about your adaptability to change. One career counseling client who knew this would be an issue, had quoted Darwin in our session, in a different context. He said, “It’s survival of the fittest.” Well he was wrong. Darwin never said that. Darwin wrote about the survival of the most adaptable. I told him to properly quote or paraphrase Darwin. He did. Why was this important? Prior to coming to me for interviewing held, he had done his homework and knew that the person who was going to be interviewing him in a couple of days, had studied biology in college. So when he properly quoted Darwin, the interviewer was impressed. It may not have been the key reason he got the job, but it certainly helped – as did his examples of being adaptable.
In addition to showing adaptability, play the experience card. Talk about how you have spent your career coping with the unforeseen and unexpected, solving problems and saving money. That’s what employers want to hear.
Not current. (This is true for both older workers and the long-term unemployed.) If you are not current in your profession then, frankly, you don’t deserve the job. There is no excuse for not being up-to-date on what is happening in your industry. None. If you need to learn something, learn it. There are some very good and legitimate on-line classes that are offered, some of which are free. Check out www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses; www.coursera.org; and www.edx.org.
An interesting thing about the not being current concern is that it can help to fill the dreaded resume gap. I recommend, under “Work Experience,” to begin with “Related Employment Activities” dated from your last job to “present.” List the classes you have taken. (I will deal with the resume gap in more detail, below.)
When it comes to technology and being comfortable with technology, your LinkedIn profile can say a great deal about you. Include multimedia items but, most importantly, make your “professional line” a statement of your “unique selling proposition.” For example, in my case, you will note that I focus on the fact that, while I work with everyone, my mission is to promote the hiring of veterans.
Health. Here I am referring to two distinct things: First, health insurance. If you are getting your health insurance from your spouse or for any other reason you do not need the employer to provide you with health insurance, that is a great negotiating position to have. You can say, “I don’t need you to provide me with health insurance. I would like a little more salary than what you are offering. Why not split the difference in the insurance?” It’s a reasonable request.
Second, your medical condition. You want them to know that you are well. All they can do is to ask if there is any reason you cannot fulfill the requirements of the job. They can’t ask if you are healthy. So while in most circumstances I do not like an “Interests” section in a resume, in this case I would include one, as long as it is true, where you mention, for example, your exercise regime or other things that “healthy” people do, like travel.
Grandpa/Grandma. No one is going to hire their grandparent and if that is what you look like, you will have a problem. Clothes sometimes do make the man, or woman. But what if, for example, you use a cane? That’s going to be a negative, unless you turn it into a positive. When asked, and yes, I know, it’s not a question, “Tell me about yourself,” say, “You see this damn cane? I hate it. But I have to use it and have used it for the past five years. Look at what I have accomplished over the past five years. I don’t let anything get in the way of my goals!”
Worries About the Long-Term Unemployed
Here are the unspoken concerns about the long-term unemployed.
There must be something wrong with him/her. Logical. If no one has hired you that means no one wants you, so why should I? Logic is not, however, always correct. (Sorry, Mr. Spock!)
First, in today’s economy being unemployed for a long time, sometimes a year or more, is nothing new. And, if following the upcoming elections, people are confident that the job market will turn around, it is safe to assume that the unemployment rate will go through the roof because all of the people who have given up looking for jobs and removed themselves from the unemployment statistics, will reenter the job market. So being unemployed for a long-time is not surprising.
Second, the way to get the interview if you are answering an ad, is by writing a great cover letter. As always, it has to be short, sweet and to the point. And the point is to focus on your most relevant accomplishment for the job which will make them want to look at your resume. And then, as we are about to discuss, you eliminate the resume gap.
Resume gap. We have already discussed filling the gap with courses you have taken. This sends the message that you are not the type of person who can remain idle and, more to the point, that you have remained current in your field. But you should also include volunteer activities. Make it clear that these were not paid positions so there are no misunderstandings. But, as with everything else, focus on your accomplishments. This is real experience and it is current. Don’t ignore it just because you did not get paid for it.
Which brings me to short-term gigs. List them. Even if they are not in your profession, list them. Stacking the shelves at the local supermarket shows that you leave your ego at the door and are willing to do what is necessary to pay the bills. Don’t try to fudge it. I had a candidate for an executive recruiting client who was an auditor by profession. He wrote on his resume that he was a customer service auditor at a major retailer. When I started to ask him questions about it he admitted that his job was to check customer receipts before they left the store. It was rather pathetic. The rest you can guess.
Interviewing. (This is also true for older workers.) By all means talk about your accomplishments. But if you begin each story mentioning how long ago it happened, it will focus the interviewer’s mind on the fact that you may not have done much lately. So if you are going to date something, make certain it is recent. My rule is this: Remember the past but focus on the future.
Caregiver. Having worked at nursing homes for a good four years, this one is important for me. If the reason for your unemployment is that you have been taking care of a loved-one, put it on the resume as you would any other job. Let’s say you were caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s. List the responsibilities and the skills you had to master: Patience; scheduling; vetting of social service agencies; learning the government bureaucracy; understanding legal documents… What employer in their right mind would not want someone on their staff with that skill set? Can you think of anyone better for a customer service position?
There are no quick answers for the problems of older workers and the long-term unemployed. This is not, “What’s wrong with my resume?” That’s easy. It is not easy to come up with a generic answer to how to network, apply for a job, and interview for a job, when dealing with age and unemployment. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter, career counselor and business advisor. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over a quarter of a million times and have garnered national and international media attention. In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador. An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.