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Programs for Seniors Re-Entering the Work Force in Monterey, California
New Programs in Monterey Aid Retirees' Transition to Private Sector Jobs

Associated Content, July 3, 2008

Joe De La Torre was frustrated. The Salinas, Calif., resident had been looking for a job and couldn't find one, even though he was an experienced carpenter, electrician and building designer.

"I suspected my age was handicapping me," said De La Torre, now 70.

A local program designed to put seniors back in the work force made all the difference for him. After a stint volunteering at Natividad Medical Center, De La Torre got a job with the hospital's engineering department, doing maintenance and repairs.

"They hired me after they saw what I could do," said De La Torre. "Without the Monterey County Alliance on Aging, I never could have gotten my foot in the door. It's a great organization."

Older Americans looking for work sometimes have a tough time of it. Some are forced to change careers because of physical limitations. Some have retired and then decide to go back to work, only to find that job requirements have changed dramatically. Still others haven't worked in many years and aren't sure where to start.

Luckily, Monterey County in Central California has several programs available to assist seniors who are entering or re-entering the workforce. And people who serve seniors in this community are quite aware of the challenges, as well as the need for older workers.

The Monterey County Alliance on Aging and the local Workforce Development Board, a partnership between the private sector and the federal government, both offer job training and job search assistance for older residents.

Not only is this vital for seniors, but also for the work force itself, said WDB executive director Joseph Werner.

"The board's position is that having older workers in the work force is critical," said Werner. "They're incredibly valuable employees - loyal, committed, and with the kind of values that should be emulated by younger workers."

Chris Bunn of Crown Packing in Salinas can attest to the value of older employees. Two of his tractor drivers are octogenarians - Junior Gunderson, 82, and Fernando Garcia, 80.

"These guys can put in 80 hours a week, three weeks in a row," said Bunn, driving the big yellow Caterpillar tractors in the fields.

That kind of work ethic is a driving force in many older workers. Bunn notes that many Crown employees retire, realize they miss it, and come back to work. "Even my dad retired and came back to work at age 70," he said.

Many older people either want to, or will have to, have a job. Eighty percent of baby boomers surveyed by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) say they want to work, both because they have the desire to, and also because they're afraid of outliving their retirement benefits.

As the baby boomer generation ages - with the oldest wave turning 62 this year - there is also a fear on the part of employers that these mature, seasoned workers will begin retiring en masse, leaving critical shortages in the work force. There are some 77 million baby boomers presently, representing 37 percent of the U.S. population.

As the years roll on, more will achieve retirement age, but many will still want to work. Workforce Investment Act planners predict that the number of older people seeking employment services will increase continuously over the next decade.

"We've got to be able to keep these people in the workplace longer," said Alliance on Aging executive director Teresa Sullivan. "Their expertise and work ethic can't be replaced."

The Alliance on Aging has two programs that offer Monterey County's older adults an opportunity to enter or re-enter the workforce.

One program, Senior AIDES, provides low-income seniors over age 55 with jobs at public or nonprofit agencies, where they will be trained toward the goal of finding permanent employment. Seniors are paid minimum wage for 20 hours each week, which is funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Labor. Funding within the Senior AIDES Program covers the older workers' wages, benefits, and supportive services while they are placed at local community agencies.

About 25 percent of Senior AIDES enrollees make the transition to employment in the private sector annually.

Sullivan said that the older man or woman in the Senior AIDES program was typically existing on Social Security alone, prior to enrollment.

About three-quarters of the applicants are women in their 60s and 70s - often widowed or divorced - who must rejoin the work force out of financial need. Some have never worked outside the home before. "You would be surprised at how many seniors in this area are eligible," said Sullivan, who notes that anyone age 55 or older, with an income of under $12,000 a year, qualifies for the program.

In addition, the Alliance also provides employment specialists in the area who can help link people over age 50 to full- or part-time jobs. This service is provided free of charge to both employers and job seekers.

Alliance on Aging works hand-in-hand with the Monterey County Workforce Development Board to determine seniors' eligibility and to develop on-the-job training for enrollees. Money for college or special training programs may also be available to some individuals in need. In particular, older workers may need training in computer skills, which are increasingly a mandatory requirement for just about any job.

The Workforce Development Board, established through the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998, is made up of more than 40 board members who assist in strategic planning, policy development, oversight and evaluation of work force development in the county.

Although the WDB addresses needs of workers of all ages, there is an awareness of the special needs of seniors, some of whom are discouraged by the perceived bias against hiring older employees.

The board also works with employers to help market the merits of older workers. Employers also have to be able to make concessions to accommodate some of the special needs of seniors, who may want to combine retirement, work and volunteerism.

"Older workers are experienced and talented, and they're being encouraged to return to the work force," said the WDB's Werner, with the aid of local businesses who want to hire seniors.

Joe De La Torre is a prime example. Although he had to leave the hospital job due to a foot injury, he's looking for other employment opportunities.

"The Alliance on Aging helped me tremendously, and I'm going to go back to them," he said.

By Kathryn (Kathy) Nichols

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