THE BLOG
01/17/2013 06:45 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2013

Code Word for Age Discrimination

New Yorkers over 55 quickly learn the open secret that "overqualified" means "too old." The Great Recession has impacted workers of all ages, but seniors and near-seniors have been hit especially hard. New Yorkers age 55 and older who lose their jobs are out of work for an average of one year, compared to 41 weeks for younger employees.

To highlight the value of older employees, last week the City Council passed a resolution I wrote encouraging New York City employers to hire older workers.

Older employees face a longer, more frustrating job search. To give one example: Pamela, now in her mid-50s was a business manager for nearly three decades when the recession hit. She was laid off and still has not been able to find full-time work. On interviews, Pamela hears the same feedback: her skills are great, but she is "overqualified." One interview was cut short after Pamela revealed the year she graduated from college.

William is in his mid-60s and worked in the New York City fashion industry for more than 40 years. Booking jobs has gotten increasingly tough. Employers like his resume, but repeatedly say he is "overqualified." After 20 interviews without any offers, William has concluded his age is a factor.

Older women and minorities in particular are struggling to find employment. A recent Community Service Society study found that women aged 55 to 64 who are laid off are out of work longer than any other group in New York City. In 2010 the jobless rate for older black and Asian workers was well above the national average. These numbers don't account for the seniors who give up looking for work, or those forced to take jobs with lower pay and fewer benefits.

Retirement at age 55 is not an option for many Baby Boomers. With pensions shrinking and expenses increasing, more seniors have to continue working to survive. More must be done to help them get back into the workforce.

Part of the solution is changing the way companies view older employees. There is a perception that hiring seniors will cost more and they won't be able to perform the necessary work. In reality, older workers offer a wealth of experience and opportunities for intergenerational collaboration.

The Vita Needle factory in Needham, Mass. has become somewhat famous for its embrace of a mature workforce. With an average employee age of 74, the company expects to bring in some $11 million in gross sales this year. And what is good for the company is good for the community. In addition to the needed paycheck, the job gives these older workers a sense of purpose and belonging, leading to fewer calls on government and charitable resources.

Here in New York, the drugstore chain CVS is trying to attract senior employees by offering classes to help with the online application process. Companies including Google, AT&T, and Toys R Us have signed an AARP pledge to recruit workers from across diverse age groups.

Of course, some seniors need more training opportunities to help them re-enter the job market. The New York City Department for the Aging administers the Senior Employment Services (SES) program, also known as Title 5, which helps older workers with computer classes, job placement, and on-site training, while they earn a subsidized income. Seventy-nine percent of participants have successfully kept their jobs after the program ended. But severe cuts in federal funding have left SES with fewer slots and a long waiting list.

To be sure, job creation efforts should benefit New Yorkers of all ages. But with the senior population expected to double over the next 30 years, this group deserves special attention. They're ready to work; they just need a chance. With the right opportunities and training, older New Yorkers can help shape our 21st century economy in a positive way.