SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
Gary Olson put in 32 years as an analytical chemist at Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., including stints in R&D and on digital innovations. “I had a great career there,” Olson says. “I was never bored.” But worn down by Kodak’s constant restructuring and layoffs, in January 2002, at 56, Olson took a generous buyout offer.
He and his wife moved to Seattle, Wash. to be closer to their daughter and her family and Olson kicked back for a few years. In 2005, he spotted a Craigslist job posting by the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging for a “senior environmental employee” at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Senior Environmental Employment Program and position were reserved for workers 55 and older. Intrigued, he applied. “I wasn’t going to do what I did for more than 30 years,” says Olson. “I wanted to do something different.” He got the job.
The 2 Programs for Workers 55+
Ever heard of the EPA’s Senior Environmental Employment Program, which has been around for 31 years? How about the comparable, seven-year-old Agriculture Conservation Experienced Services Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture?
I hadn’t. These jobs are specifically designed to tap into the experience of boomers, yet not once in interviews for my Next Avenue column on job opportunities for people in their 50s and 60s did these programs or ones like them come up. (The idea for this column came from my editor who learned about them at the American Society on Aging’s recent Aging in America conference.)
“Older workers are a largely untapped resource,” says Gregory Merrill, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Older Worker Career Center, an 18-year-old nonprofit based in Arlington, Va. that operates the two programs mentioned. “What we find is boomers want to make a difference.” Merrill’s group has matched up hundreds of 55+ workers with the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture around the country.
Lois Kohashi-Sinclair, who runs the two federal programs through her job at the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging in Seattle says: “A lot more people aren’t ready to go on the golf course and just hang it up. Boomers have a lot of strengths and knowledge.”
How These Programs Work
The two programs are run through a cooperative agreement with a handful of national aging groups including the National Older Worker Career Center (NOWCC). The EPA and the Natural Resource Conservation Service describe the position they want to fill (which could be full-time or part-time); the NOWCC posts the job and screens candidates; the agencies interview prospects and announce their preference; NOWCC does the background check and, once the person is hired, handles the paperwork, such as time sheets.
Other groups doing similar work to NOWCC are the National Association for Hispanic Elderly, National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, National Caucus and Center on Black Aged, National Council on Aging and Senior Service America.
Participants aren’t exactly federal employees; they’re considered participants in the program. Enrollees receive a modest hourly wage — Olson started at $12.75 an hour, or about $27,000 for a 40-hour workweek — and many are eligible for benefits, such as health and dental insurance, paid holidays, vacation days and sick leave.
“This isn’t make work,” says Merrill. “This is real stuff that has to be done.”
Mentoring Younger Workers
Randy Randall agrees. He’s a specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and state coordinator for the Conservation Experienced Services Program in Colorado. Randall currently has 10 people in the program, part-time and full-time, many with a natural resource background. They earn an average some $20 an hour.
Randall emphasizes that the jobs offer participants flexibility while the agency gets a skilled asset. “We can work with older, seasoned workers and have them mentor our younger natural resource folks,” he says.
People like Gary Olson, who’s now 70 and assists 39 Indian reservations in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, focusing on education and outreach to improve their air quality. He worked 40 hours a week until cutting back to 30 hours this year.
“I am working with people a lot younger than I am and they are willing to weigh my ideas, which is nice and sometimes they have better ideas and that is good,” he says. “Retirement really isn’t what people envision when they say the word. It’s the next phase and if blessed with reasonably good health it’s good to expand your horizons.”
Merrill and Kohashi-Sinclair want to see this employment model expand into other government agencies (me too).
“People forget that there are many people who want to help make government better,” says Merrill. And they don’t need a “high-flying career,” adds Kohashi-Sinclair. She says: “A lot of people are looking for more passion in what they’re doing.”
How to Find Jobs at Federal Agencies
If you’re looking for a job in your Unretirement, the federal government is worth exploring. For openings in the two EPA and Agriculture programs specifically for people 55+, visit the job-postings area of the NOWCC site.
To look broader, check out the Go Government site, a one-stop shop created by the Partnership for Public Service, a bipartisan nonprofit. You can also find leads at the USAJobs site. Just bear in mind that these sites aren’t limited to older workers, so you’ll have plenty of competition. Make your best case for yourself.