Being over 45 and out of work for a long time is a pretty bad double-whammy. Separately, each aspect could be trouble enough when trying to find new work, but combined, well, ouch.
For Maria Heidkamp, a senior researcher at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and founding member of the school’s New Start Career Network (NSCN), it’s high time to help older, long-term unemployed New Jerseyans get back in the game. The trick is to make sure they understand how the game is played since the last time they set out to find a team.
Heidkamp will present “Helping New Jersey’s Older, Long-Term Unemployed Job Seekers,” a free workshop to introduce job hunters to the resources NSCN has to offer, on Friday, January 22, at 9:45 a.m. at the Princeton Public Library. The event will be presented through the Professional Services Group of Mercer County. Visit www.psgofmercercounty.org for more information.
While Heidkamp herself has never been counted among the ranks of the older, long-term unemployed, she’s spent much of her career studying the effects of unemployment. She was born in New York but grew up in New Jersey before heading off to Cornell University to study public policy and government. While there she went to Weirton, West Virginia, to study what was happening with the Weirton Steel Corporation plant, which was about to become employee-owned.
The plant’s financial woes had numerous effects on the region, all the way down to restaurants suffering because too many people were out of work to afford hitting a diner. The experience left an indelible mark on Heidkamp, who wondered just what else was going on in U.S. business. She earned her bachelor’s in government from Cornell and a master’s from NYU.
Her career kicked off at the National Governor’s Association in 1984, where she was a policy analyst. There she studied the effects of labor programs and solutions in the U.S. and Canada, which would come in handy about a decade later.
In 1992 Heidkamp became the director of the Wisconsin Labor Management Council at the Wisconsin Department of Industry and Labor Relations. In 1994 she went to Hungary for the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Agency for International Development as the director of the Labor Market Transition Project there. She served as a technical advisor on dislocated workers, customized training, and economic development in transition economies.
In other words, she got to apply what she had learned about labor issues and unemployment a decade earlier and put it all into practice helping Hungarian residents find work in the post-communist era.
Eight years later Heidkamp and her husband, whom she met in Hungary, and children moved to Massachusetts for a few years before heading to New Jersey. She joined the Heldrich Center in 2006 and lives in Princeton with her three children, “all of whom are very musical,” she says.
The numbers. Unemployment numbers never look good, but they do look a little better than they used to. Overall. But break the numbers down to the specifics of over-45 and out of work for at least six months and you become aware of a hidden problem within a problem.
Forty percent of New Jersey’s job seekers have been out of work at least six months. That’s about 125, 000 people. And six months is actually a comparatively short time. Three-quarters of long-term unemployed individuals have been unemployed over a year. And half of them are over the age of 45.
Since NSCN launched in October, about 600 people, mostly from the populated central and northern counties of New Jersey, have signed up for the program, Heidkamp says. On average, the new members have been out of work almost three years. Most have at least a two-year degree, about 40 percent have a bachelor’s degree, and a quarter have graduate degrees. The main age range is 55 to 64, with most members being about 56, she says.
In other words, the people turning to NSCN are educated and experienced, they’re just not employed. This surprises Heidkamp. “In any sort of normal economy, these people would be working,” she says.
What also surprises her are the fields most of the 600 come from. Most who have signed up, she says, are IT and healthcare professionals — two fields that seem so very much in need of real workers right now. Finance and insurance professionals aren’t far behind in sheer number, followed by business services professionals.
It’s not so much the economy of today (which is actually showing signs of health) that Heidkamp blames. It’s the still-lingering effects of the recession, which tossed thousands out onto the streets. “The cuts were so deep and so wide,” she says. “Just so many people were affected.”
Misunderstandings about money. The stigma of being older often centers on employers’ perceptions that seasoned workers might be more expensive, Heidkamp says. Well, perhaps. But, she says, she’s heard time and again from job seekers in their 50s and even 60s that they’re willing to work for whatever the job pays, especially if these job seekers have already turned down work.
The misunderstandings about money go both ways. Many newly unemployed will turn down a job offer early because the money isn’t where it should be for them. Later, with nothing coming in and unemployment benefits dry, these same people come to regret not taking the one job they were offered months or even years ago.
In some cases, negotiation isn’t what it used to be. One woman Heidkamp knows was offered $40,000 for a job and asked for $50,000, thinking they’d meet at $45,000. The company skipped the negotiation and offered the job to someone who took the 40. She remains out of work.
Employers might also fear that older employees who take jobs for lesser rates will bolt the first time someone offers them more money, Heidkamp says. But that hasn’t proven true any more than anything else in the frustrating world of employment seeking.
The new game. One of the biggest problems jobseekers face is simply not knowing what the rules of job seeking are these days. Someone might have great qualifications but an outdated resume. Someone else might not know how interviews are conducted these days. Maybe some certifications are long out of date, which didn’t matter to a past employer but certainly matters to a potential one.
When you haven’t had to look for work in a long time, Heidkamp says, your brain isn’t always able to navigate a changed process. Worse, you simply might not know that you don’t know something. Take keywords on electronically submitted resumes. If you don’t use the right ones, or don’t know how to use them, a job you’re infinitely qualified for can go to someone else because a computer filtered you out before a human laid eyes on your resume. And a lot of people aren’t even aware that that’s a thing these days.
The purpose of NSCN, Heidkamp says, is to help workers find the resources needed to look for work and make themselves attractive candidates. Its website (newstartcareernetwork.org) offers resources such as networking groups, volunteer job search coaches, mock interviews to help you polish your presentation skills, and connections to networking partners such as United Way and AARP.
If nothing else, being surrounded by those looking for work in a new world has taught Heidkamp a valuable lesson she likes to impart to everyone. Look for work, all the time.
“You need to be in job-search mode even if you’re not looking for a new job,” she says. Because you never know when that security you thought you’d have will suddenly go away.