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Focusing on the older worker

Tanya Richardson faces a quandary at the Vanguard Group Inc., where she is manager of corporate diversity in charge of programs to employ and retain workers older than 55.

Tanya Richardson faces a quandary at the Vanguard Group Inc., where she is manager of corporate diversity in charge of programs to employ and retain workers older than 55.

Older workers hired as part-time telephone customer-service representatives tend to perform better than their younger counterparts. But recruiting them poses challenges that frustrate Richardson.

"We have to train our recruiters" to do more listening to older applicants, she said.

Tomorrow, the U.S. Labor Department will release its monthly report on number of jobs created, or, more likely in this economy, jobs lost. With unemployment rising, the issue of how to handle older workers becomes more problematic.

Yesterday, Richardson and nearly two dozen workforce-development officials, economists, educators and human resources managers attended a roundtable on older workers sponsored by the AARP (formerly called the American Association of Retired Persons) at the Hub Cira Centre in Philadelphia.

"You have an economic crisis bumping into a demographic crisis," said Steven T. Wray, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.

Until the relatively recent erosion of the job market, companies, worried about coming labor shortages, were wrestling with how to replace a significant cohort of retirement-age workers, or how to persuade them to stay.

Now, though, employers who may have been counting on attrition through retirement to help reduce payrolls and cut costs, are seeing older workers choosing to stay on the job because they cannot afford to retire, Wray said.

"Or," he said, "you may have companies training people for jobs you thought would exist in three years, but now they won't exist."

It can be particularly troubling, he said, for companies that had been building bench strength to prepare for retiring boomers. They now are saddled with two sets of workers, including older workers, who may be more expensive.

Karen P. Kozachyn, associate dean of community and corporate education at Delaware County Community College, said she had seen evidence in the classroom of older workers' wanting to stay at work.

"Students over 60 are coming back to retrain themselves for careers," she said. "They are up against the college graduates now."

That is where it can get difficult.

Richardson, from Vanguard, which has won an award from AARP for best practices in employing older workers, got into a dialogue with Marcia Rosen, a job developer for JEVS Human Services, who specializes in placing older adults.

When Rosen heard that Vanguard has been hiring older workers, she asked Richardson for a phone number, so she could direct her clients to the firm.

"We're not set up that way," said Richardson, because Vanguard's application process begins with a computer.

But job-hunting via computer is not familiar to many older workers, Rosen said. "They ask me, 'Why can't I talk to a human being and tell them what I can do?' "

A question participants raised - and one that Richardson is wrestling with herself - is whether the computerized job-application system eliminates otherwise good employees or whether it serves as a screen to knock out those who probably couldn't handle the job anyway.

The interview stage also poses problems related to the point Rosen made, Richardson said. She encourages recruiters to listen to applicants and "allow them to tell their story," instead of rigidly adhering to a recruiting script.

Vanguard, which she described as a young culture, sees the payoff in employing older workers.

When they complete their training, they outscore younger workers on the final exam, Richardson said. Older workers also are better able to deal with irate callers on the phone.

"They are more relational," she said.

Wray said that it would be up to workforce-development professionals like Rosen to serve as translators. "You'll have to be the intermediaries," he said. "You may not like to learn Vanguard's computer system, but you might have to" to help clients get work.

In a state like Pennsylvania, which has a high population of older adults, developing the older worker will be key to the state's economic health, Wray said.

"We need to spend as much effort on the older worker as we do on younger workers," he said, "and that's a big systemic change."