Story by Matt Parke of WorkingNation
More than 200 people gathered at the Victoria J. Mastrobuono Theater in New Brunswick, New Jersey for a discussion on re-skilling the mid-career workforce. Moderated by PBS NewsHour anchor Hari Sreenivasan, the town hall focused on the challenges of long-term unemployment due to automation or offshoring of jobs, especially for workers over the age of 45. The event was filmed for New Jersey Public Television for airing at a later date.
The trauma of losing a job and the added embarrassment of a long job search can have a cumulative effect on older workers, leading them to drop out of the job hunt feeling worthless and uncompetitive. Town hall panelists suggested that helping these workers assess and build upon their experience could solve the skills and employment gap.
“Other than the death of a family member or close friend, losing a job is the worst thing that can happen to someone,” Heldrich Center Director Carl Van Horn said.
“A big part of our identity is in our work, and when you take away the work, you take away the identity,” JEVS Human Services Chief Executive Officer John Colborn said.
“Job seekers need to recognize their skills from a previous job will be valued by the next employer,” WorkingNation Executive Committee member and former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor Jane Oates said.
New Start Career Network Director Maria Heidkamp discussed the network, which was launched in October 2015 to serve New Jersey residents age 45 and older who have been unemployed for at least six months. NSCN currently serves over 2,600 members throughout New Jersey. NSCN’s services include webinars, networking events, job fairs, weekly tips, career coaching, and a website offering an array of resources and tools.
“We want to help them navigate this job market,” Heidkamp said. “We want them to stay positive and put their best foot forward.”
The town hall also included the debut of a mini-documentary about Joe Konopka, who utilized the New Start Career Network’s services to find a job. Mallory Jones, who served as Konopka’s Volunteer Career Coach, was also featured in the documentary.
As one audience member said during the question-and-answer session, staying on the job hunt is a 24/7 process where “putting on the suit every day” is half of the battle.
Yet it is this type of rethinking that mid-career workers must do to understand that the game has changed for them and what worked in the past isn’t going to work today.
“We have a static workforce. Employees need to look at their careers like a lattice and not a ladder anymore,” said panelist Amanda Mullan, Senior Vice President of the New Jersey Resources Corporation.
“Employers understand they can’t do the same thing or they will get the same result,” Newark Alliance CEO Kimberly McLain said.
What is developing at Rutgers University via the New Start Career Network is part of a growing movement nationwide to retool higher education to better fit students of all ages and deliver a skilled workforce capable of performing the technology dependent duties that are increasingly in demand. Colborn said that the “traditional age” of the college student is no longer the case these days and the education system must adapt to include and nurture the needs of mid-career workers.
“There aren’t many entry-level jobs anymore,” Colborn said, “We need a better way of equipping people and we have a lot to do to update curricula.”
Easing the difficult transition of re-skilling and overcoming a one-size-fits-all degree mentality in higher education should be a priority for universities and community colleges. But training older workers to enter the burgeoning gig economy might not be what they need.
“People who like gig jobs tend to be in their 20s, not their 40s or 50s,” Van Horn said. “They like to know when they get up the next day that their job will be there.”
The gig economy also presents problems when it comes to a social safety net. New Start Career Network Senior Associate Michele Martin asked what further assistance these workers need to survive, re-skill, and get back to work. The panel said that untethering health insurance from employment and creating a “portable benefits package” will be ways to strengthen a household’s economy to deal with employment shocks and the sporadic nature of gig or freelance work.
Ultimately, providing economic security and getting mid-career workers to rediscover what is within themselves are most important tasks for counselors and educators. With a little bit of self-confidence and new skills, these workers can defy stereotypes or job search algorithms and move beyond expectations.