Boomers Take a Step Back Down the Career Ladder

Emily Brandon

Ed Bankos, 61, of Charlotte, N.C., has applied for about 20 jobs online since he was laid off in May, but he hasn't gotten a single job interview.

"You just E-mail them your résumé , and you sit back and you wait," says Bankos, who worked at a company that makes steel molds.

Over the past three months, Bankos has steadily lowered his expectations for finding a new job. At the peak of his career, he made $70,000 annually.

Now he's applying for jobs that pay $12 to $13 an hour. Bankos is one of a growing number of baby boomers considering stepping back down a rung or two on the career ladder. Here's how to cope with the new job-search reality.

Prepare for a lower-status job

Older workers who change jobs after age 51 typically move out of manager positions and into new jobs with fewer responsibilities, less pay, and fewer benefits, according to a recent Urban Institute and AARP Public Policy Institute analysis. Median wages fell by 22 percent for those who were laid off, and nearly 25 percent of those making late-life career changers lost their health insurance. The lower or absent paychecks often require a lifestyle adjustment. "As soon as I got laid off, we cut back expenses," says Mike Noonan, 57, a San Francisco computer programmer who lost his job in January after being with his company for 10 years. "A couple of my former coworkers have taken jobs as security guards, and I probably will too as soon as my unemployment runs out," he says. Noonan is working to reduce his household's expenses, including getting rid of one of his cars, changing to a more affordable cellphone plan, re-evaluating his homeowners and car insurance coverage, and doing his own home improvement projects.

Job hunting can take a while

It can be frustrating to spend so much time on the job hunt when you have a solid résumé. "When I got out of college, I had to wait tables and things like that because they told me I wasn't experienced like the older workforce," says Deb Holley, 56, of Ankeny, Iowa. She now has an M.B.A.and is a certified public accountant. "Now I get told over and over that I am overqualified." The typical laid-off worker at least 55 years old was unemployed for 28.6 weeks in July, more than a month longer than the 23.4 weeks younger workers were job hunting, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some older workers are applying for entry-level jobs. A recent Harris Interactive and CareerBuilder survey of 2,667 hiring managers and human resource professionals found that 26 percent have received job applications from workers over the age of 50 for entry-level jobs, and 7 percent have even gotten internship applications from older workers.

Stay upbeat

Try not to let your frustration over the length of the job search affect your interactions with potential employers. "There are quite a few candidates out there who may have been looking a while and are panicked, but you still need to sell yourself," says Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder. "As I interview candidates, I look for experienced workers who really prepare for the interview and do a really good job talking about specific examples in their background and how that will impact what I need." The good news: The majority of employers (65 percent) said they would consider experienced candidates who apply for jobs for which they're overqualified, CareerBuilder found.

Get in the door

Of course, you have to get your résumé to the top of the stack before you can score an interview and a new job. "Don't put things on your résumé that highlight your age such as the year you graduated from college," advises Tom Musbach, senior editor of Yahoo! HotJobs. Bankos, who was in the Air Force for four years shortly after graduating from high school, has started leaving this experience off his résumé to avoid revealing his age. "I'm proud that I served in the Air Force between 1966 and 1970, but at the same time, I am giving my age away," he says. Now Bankos lists only his past 15 years of work on job applications. "If you really feel like you may be overqualified, perhaps tailor the achievements that you have had in your last few jobs so your résumé doesn't seem overqualified," says Musbach.

Pick a new field

If you can't find a job similar to your previous position, a layoff is the perfect excuse to test out a new career field. Tap into your extensive network of friends and acquaintances to inquire about openings in other fields. "Older people often have an advantage in terms of having a much broader and more extensive network," says Musbach.

Also consider going back to school or retraining for a new field. Charlotte Sanders, 59, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., was a senior credit representative for an energy company until she was laid off in 2001. After years of searching for a job with the same level of pay and seniority, Sanders studied for and took the state exam for a license to sell insurance. This week, Sanders begins a new job selling life, health, and accident insurance.

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