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Job-Hunting Toolkit for Older Workers

Saturday, 30 Mar 2013 | 3:09 AM ET
Troels Graugaard | E+ | Getty Images

Thinking about retiring? Odds are, you're not financially ready.

More than half of Americans have less than $25,000 saved for retirement, according to a recent survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, which means more and more people will soon be contemplating later retirement dates — or re-entry into the workforce in their sixth decade.

The problem is, it's not so easy for older workers to land jobs. Job seekers over age 55 tend to spend significantly longer looking for work — a median of 23.6 weeks in February, compared to a median of 15.8 weeks or less for workers under age 34, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And near record levels of age-discrimination lawsuits were filed in 2012, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The good news is that you don't have to pretend to be 34 to land that job. There are a number of steps you can take to make yourself a hot job candidate, even with gray in your hair.

First, instead of thinking of yourself as past your expiration date, remember that you have clear assets that younger workers don't.

"There's tremendous evidence that there are some perception issues" about older workers, says Christine McMahon, president and CEO of ReServe, an organization that connects older professionals with paid work at nonprofits. "It seems to us that older workers in the workplace are really a good thing. They work harder, they stay later, they cost less, they bring a level of expertise and smartness that younger people don't have."

Robert Damon, president, North America for the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, is more blunt.

"What we're seeing a lot is especially in these startup companies they'll say, 'OK, we've got the hoodies, now we need some adult supervision,'" he said. And when his firm is conducting a search, he says, "We'll ask a company, 'OK, do you want a hoodie in this role or do you want a suit? And let's talk about the reasons why.'"

There are a number of steps older workers can take to present themselves in the most favorable light.

Age-proof your resume. McMahon said her organization regularly advises clients on this. "No one needs to know when you graduated from college," she says, so don't list the year. "Then, rather than leading off with when you started and where you ended" at a company, "highlight your skills and accomplishments at that place. It's much more important to the employer to know that when you worked here, this is what you accomplished," whether it's a big pickup in sales, expansion into a new market, or something else.

Get up to speed on technology, and make it clear that you are. "You absolutely have to show that you are up to speed on technology," according to Kerry Hannon, the author of "Great Jobs for Everyone 50+" and AARP's official job expert. "Employers should be able to link to your online profile. Be on LinkedIn," she said. If your technology skills are out of date and "you don't have the qualifications for the job, get them" with a course or a workshop.

Use your contacts. A key advantage for older workers is (in old-speak) your Rolodex. Hannon says you can tap these people for tips about the job you're considering, and you can also subtly point out to your potential employer that you have a network that could be valuable to the company.

Project energy. Employers may fret that older workers lack stamina, but if you can show that you are reasonably fit and take care of yourself, that's a plus. So is dressing in a way that's current but not overly young. "There's a lot to be said for having an appearance of someone who has lived a life and has experience," Hannon says, but "have a suit that's what people are wearing these days."

Assess the corporate culture. Finally, take an honest assessment of the environment you'd be working in. You may be perfectly happy at a company where the average age is 25, but you need to take a clear-eyed look and decide if it's for you.

Damon recalls a search that Korn/Ferry performed for a musical instrument company. The company's staff "is populated by people with long hair, nipple rings, and body ink. They needed someone who had substance and vision and a strategy for growing a business," he said. That suggested what they wanted was "a suit that was going to work in a hoodie company."

Korn/Ferry developed a strategy for assessing candidates' likely fit. "The first question we would ask about this role was, 'Do you have an iPod? If so, what music is on it?'" he said. "The culture's important and a suit can work, but you have to embrace the culture and be relevant."

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