BANGOR, Maine — There were literally centuries of combined experience in the room. There was the guy who worked for Eastern Fine Paper for 30 years. There was the woman who worked in a sardine cannery then a shoe factory, and there was the man who worked as a forest ranger in the Allagash for 25 years.
Each of the roughly 20 people in the room had stories about their long careers, where they had worked, why they had stopped, and how challenging it was to find employment as a “seasoned worker,” sometimes known as older workers. And each of them were there to learn how to get back into the work force, how to convince potential employers that their experience was a benefit that should not be overlooked.
“Right now, the business community desperately needs us,” said Dave Tomm, president of Seasoned Workforce LLC. “They don’t fully understand it, but they’re starting to see the signs.”
Tomm presented the three-hour seasoned worker forum Thursday morning at the Bangor Career Center, providing a mix of career tips, anecdotes, inspiration and conversation as he slowly went around the room and asked attendees about their careers and what they want to do next.
Dave Oakes, 55, of Old Town said he worked for years as a trucker, but hasn’t been able to get a job recently because he’s deaf in one ear. He has been pushing for jobs with local companies, but they haven’t hired him because of the safety problems that his disability presents for truckers.
“It hurts when some people tell you ‘don’t come back,’” he said.
He said he’d like to look at other careers, such as a safety officer or a security guard. He has been out of work for two years, he said, and needs to find something fast.
“If I don’t find a job soon, I’m going to be homeless as of next month,” said Oakes.
After the forum, he said he was learning how to get out and talk to people, network with them. He also realized the importance of taking advantage of programs offered in the state, like the one he attended Thursday.
Over the last decade, the percentage of Mainers over 55 in the work force rose nearly twice as fast as the percentage of Mainers this age in the general population, according to a recent Maine Department of Labor study.
About 40 percent of those workers age 62 and over say they are delaying retirement because of the poor economy, according to a 2009 PEW Research national survey. That same survey finds that 63 percent of workers 50 to 61 expect to push back their retirements for financial reasons.
Tomm started by laying out three broad concepts for his audience to consider.
The first was technology, which he termed the seasoned worker’s Achilles’ heel. The way the mind learns after age 25 changes, said Tomm, and seasoned workers need a lot of repetition to learn new skills. But training opportunities exist, he said, at Maine libraries, career centers and other programs. In fact, said Tomm, even Bonney Staffing, a hiring agency, provides some basic computer training tutorials on its website — as well as the latest tips for what to wear on interviews and how to interview successfully.
Another concept to consider is the importance of networking, said Tomm. He advised people to network with everyone they know, in their neighborhoods, within their families, with organizations where they volunteer. Local chamber of commerce events are great places to network, he said, and the members there are often company managers or owners who are in hiring positions.
“We are good at interfacing with other people,” he said. “We know how to look at people, how to talk with them.”
Put together a sales pitch, he said, a 30- to 40-second spiel on your history, highlights and what you’re looking for in a job. Then use that pitch — give it to different people you meet. He shared the story of one seasoned worker who gave such a pitch — just for practice — to the teen bagging his groceries. The man was a computer expert, and the teen’s father owned a company and was actually looking for someone with those skills. He was hired, Tomm said.
The third concept, said Tomm, was that of reinvention. For many people, their identity is tied to their occupation. When they lose their jobs and seek a career change, there is a loss of identity that can be difficult to figure out.
He suggested people make side-by-side lists, with their strengths and skills on one side, and areas that need improvement on the other.
“You will discover things you forgot about yourself,” he said, “skills you forgot you had.”
As part of the forum, Dante Vespignani of the Entrepreneur’s Source in Portland, talked to the group about considering franchise opportunities. Franchises offer a solid business model and support, he said, and seasoned workers have the skill sets and life experience to be successful with them. A lot of young people have great ideas, but no idea how to deal with people, he suggested. Seasoned workers have those skills that come from a lifetime of work.
Throughout the seminar, as people told their stories, Tomm offered advice. He spoke about exploring opportunities in the home care area, and patient advocacy possibilities. He suggested that all the seasoned workers take the plunge and either hone or gain computer skills.
“As we get older, physically, we can’t keep up. But mentally and emotionally, we can,” he said. “Computers open things up for us.”
One man talked about how he worked for a manufacturing firm for 28 years, and his company was sold three years ago. He stayed on as plant manager until a year ago, when he was told by his new bosses that he was doing a great job, but was being let go because they could hire two younger people at his wages. Since then, as he has applied for jobs, he has been told repeatedly that he was overqualified for positions.
There’s a real shock to losing a well-paying job, said Tomm. And then there’s the double insult of seeing jobs that don’t pay enough, and then not even getting an offer for them.
The business community must realize that there’s value in the seasoned workers, and at least make the initial job offer, even if a resume outstrips a job’s requirements, said Tomm.
“I’m convinced that the business community, the economic development of this state, this country, is going to be totally involved with this demographic,” said Tomm.