Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Stimulus Includes Small Boost for Older Workers

Last year after her company eliminated her supervisory position, Wilma McGee was getting nowhere with online job applications.

“They don’t say it’s because of your age,” said McGee, 59, of Memphis. “You just don’t hear back from them.”

Today, thanks to a little-known employment program that is about to get a small boost from the federal economic stimulus package, McGee is back to work as a research-project interviewer at the University of Memphis.

The U.S. Department of Labor program that helped McGee is getting a shot in the arm -- $120 million. That translates into a 30 percent increase for the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), which helps low-income workers over 55 get job training and placement. Some 105,000 jobseekers could benefit from this sorely needed boost from Congress.

But labor experts say the raise is a small fraction of what’s really needed. In December alone, 1.4 million adults over 55 were unemployed, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many more were underemployed or have ceased looking for work, said Richard Johnson of the nonpartisan Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

“A good start would be $1 billion,” Johnson said.

As the population ages, it will be crucial for the U.S. economy to maximize employment among older workers in the coming years, according to a study released last fall by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

The center’s director, Andrew Sum, explained that the huge and aging boomer generation will account for most of the growth in the American civilian labor force --more than 90 percent--in the next decade. In fact, experts project U.S. labor shortages unless older adults continue working.

The Northeastern University study shows that the projected growth in the older labor force will likely intensify job competition for less-educated older workers. In calling for an expansion of SCSEP, Sum and his colleagues emphasize that a growing share of older workers will be “blacks and Hispanics, who face a higher incidence of income inadequacy problems.”

Increasing employment among low-income older workers is especially important; only one in eight SCSEP-eligible people is currently employed, either full or part time, according to the study.

That’s only one-quarter of the employment rate for the rest of the U.S. population over 55, according to a report prepared for the nonprofit Senior Service America, which manages SCSEP in several parts of the nation.

Still, SCSEP’s $120 million stimulus was welcome news for Clayton Fong, executive director of the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA) in Seattle.

“SCSEP has not seen a real increase in funding in the last decade,” Fong said. “As a result, we are serving fewer seniors because the funding levels stay the same, while the aging population increases.”

He added that one SCSEP “success” at NAPCA has been Prepedigma “Cora” McDonnell, who emigrated from the Philippines in 1985. Seven years ago, she found herself widowed and laid off. The 60-year-old mother of a teenage son had few job prospects.

McDonnell enrolled in computer and office management classes at NAPCA’s Seattle office. NAPCA subsidized a half-time job for her as an administrative assistant at its Chinese community center.

“It was a new environment for me,” she said. “The program was working with mostly new immigrants, who needed help in adjusting to this country.” NAPCA found McDonnell so effective it hired her full time as a receptionist and program assistant for one of its own programs, a job that allows her to help many older newcomers.

“When immigrants first come to America, they are in culture shock,” McDonnell said. “They find out it’s about having more opportunity. They need local experience, which SCSEP can give them in terms of on-the-job training.”

David Chen of the Chinese American Planning Council, who operates centers in Manhattan’s and Brooklyn’s Chinatowns, said he frequently finds a “diamond in the rough” among SCSEP applicants—a discovery only possible through one-on-one job counseling.

Chen recounted the case of an older man whom the program originally placed as a receptionist in a Chinese senior center. A discussion about the man’s employment history soon revealed that he had been the editor of a daily newspaper in Canton. When Chen discovered the now-elderly man’s capabilities, his program hired him for translation and other more sophisticated work.

“A lot of the time when you interview them, you start out thinking you can’t do much. It’s very hard. The person speaks no English. Nobody knows he has such a rich background until you get into it and you find out.”

Anthony Sarmiento, executive director of Senior Service America, stressed that SCSEP placement in local agencies and services does not merely provide jobs but promotes the well being of elders.

“The program enables them to be more engaged, to give back and build the social capital for the entire community,” Sarmiento said.

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