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More older workers joining job market

Job training classes at Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont have traditionally taught new workers skills including job interviewing and customer interaction.

But it's not just those new to the working world who are now enrolling. In the past few months, the students have gotten a little grayer, with nearly one out of five people in the training classes over 50 years old – the biggest proportion Goodwill has seen in recent years, officials say.

As the job market continues to tighten, interest in job training is becoming popular for older workers no longer able to depend on their resumes alone to land new jobs.

Fresh evidence of the tightening job market came Friday, when the Labor Department announced that July's jobless rate rose to a four-year high of 5.7 percent. Nearly 51,000 jobs were cut last month, the same as in June.

Nearly 1.1 million workers over 55 years old were unemployed in July – 200,000 more than a year earlier. The unemployment rate for those workers has risen in that time, too, though it's still below the overall national rate. Among those hunting for work is 60-year-old Maggie Lawrence, who moved to Charlotte three years ago after working for 40 years as a medical administrator. She hasn't found a job since then.

“I couldn't figure out what (employers) wanted,” said Lawrence, who spends two hours a day looking for jobs online. “I've never hit that wall before.”

Lawrence recently enrolled in Goodwill's customer service and banking class and was surprised to find she was not the only older student in the classroom.

Older workers are often used to staying with the same job for a long time. But in recent years, companies and workers have become more accustomed to shorter-term commitments. That shift can be disheartening for older workers and leaves them struggling to find employment, said Karen Geiger, a professor at the McColl School of Business.

“We have to think of our security as a portfolio of skills, rather than as a job,” she said. She stresses that diversity of skills is important to maintaining a job and remaining employable.

The number of workers over 65 years of age is on the rise. In the past three decades that age-group of workers has increased by 85 percent, compared to the entire workforce, which has grown by less than 60 percent, according to a recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of workers over 75 has grown by more than 170 percent in the past 30 years.

The number of older workers may continue to be on the rise as the baby boomer generation – those born between 1946 and 1964 – battle with the decision of whether they are ready to retire or can afford to do so.

At Goodwill, officials say job classes – which are offered for free – have become more popular as the economy has soured. The organization offers job training classes in three areas: banking, hospitality and construction. Older workers have been drawn to the banking and hospitality classes.

“I think that is a clear sign of our economic times,” said Bo Hussey, a spokesman for the local organization.

Varian Bristow, 54, enrolled in the hospitality and tourism class more than a year and half ago to improve his skills. After working as a counselor at a juvenile correctional facility for nearly 20 years, he was burned out and ready for a new job path.

“I was unsure about being able to switch careers,” Bristow said. “After doing something for so long in your life, it was concerning to change.” Wanting to diversify his skills, he turned to Goodwill and landed a job at Renaissance Charlotte Suites right out of the class.

Without the class, Bristow said he would never gotten the job, simply because he did not have the skills.

Lawrence, though, is still looking for a job even as she takes the Goodwill class. Her husband had two heart attacks three years ago, forcing him to retire early. With Lawrence out of work, they have had to dip into their retirement savings.

“We didn't expect it to be like this,” she said. “We had planned everything right.” She hopes that once she gets a job she will be able to put money back into savings and retire in another seven or eight years.

If she does not find a job by the time she is 62, Lawrence said she will file for early retirement, marking the end of a five-year job search.