MANATEE -- Many aging Americans find themselves in a position of living on fixed incomes, which sometimes leads to choosing between groceries and medications. Many more are victims of the economic collapse and not only can work, but want to as well.
May is National Older Americans Month, designed to bring focus to the plights of senior citizens and older workers who are struggling to survive. Experience Works, a statewide program, helps to retrain seniors and find them meaningful employment again.
It can be an uphill climb to overcome perceptions about senior citizens, according to Charles Lewis, employment and training coordinator for the nonprofit agency operating in 50 of Florida's counties and 30 other states.
Experience Works provides job training for low-income workers or unemployed people over the age of 55 who need or want to find work.
"It's a win-win situation for everyone because the agency that gets our participants who do on-the-job training don't have to pay anything for the labor," said Lewis. "Experience Works pays the salary" and worker's comp insurance.
Participants can remain in the program for up to four years.
Lewis is a former participant. After retiring from the U.S. Marine Corps with decades of logistics experience, "I wanted to find work and everywhere I went they wouldn't hire me," he said. "I went to one interview and was directed to Experience Works, and it just went from there."
Lewis coordinates with companies and organizations willing to take on older employees. Those willing to do so seem to be few and far between.
"We all have this age barrier to overcome, but my selling point is that all of our seniors are reliable, on time and dedicated," he said. "They have a lot to teach, as well as to learn. The quality of work you are going to get will be incredible."
It makes sense, but Lewis admits that it's been hard sell.
"It's a struggle," he said. "I've put about 60,000 miles on my car so far this year driving to businesses from Hillsborough County to Venice. I hit dozens of employers this week alone and didn't have a single one that expressed interest in hiring seniors."
Lewis said there is an
81-year-old woman in the program who has decades of secretary experience. The woman interviewed on the phone, and her resume was everything the company's human resources manager wanted. Three days after starting work, "the HR person came up to her and said. 'Oh we made a mistake on what we needed. We have to let you go.' They look at our age and don't understand we aren't liabilities, and if they do their due diligence, they'll see we are assets."
James Stevely, an Experience Works participant, has degrees in information technology and was a beneficiary of the dot-com boom of the 1990s, but lost his job when the boom turned into a bust. He has struggled ever since, taking whatever job he could find.
"The older you get, the more you realize that you are running out of options," said Stevely. "When you are young, you tell yourself you can get a job any time. But now I know this is my last best chance and I take it very seriously."
Stevely is handling the IT needs for the Turning Points Bill Galvano One Stop Center on 17th Avenue West. He is getting retrained while on the job to do more system administration work rather than programming and is pursuing Microsoft certifications.
"With recent hands-on experience plus fresh certifications, I'm confident that I can get back into this field that I'm trained to do," he said.
"This program means everything to me. I had given up on getting back into the field that I considered to be my vocation, but this opportunity has completely turned that around."
Tito Maldonado also is working at Turning Points through Experience Works in the dental department helping to screen patients and schedule appointments. He spent 26 years in the casino business, worked in real estate and other careers that suffered in a tough economy.
"It's very hard to get looked at when you are older," he said. "Everyone tells you that you are over-qualified. What exactly does that mean? One day I would really like someone to explain how someone can be over-qualified."
Maldonado said employers are losing out on an opportunity to gain employees that are from a generation where loyalty still means something.
Lewis said the program is looking for new employers and participants. He said seniors on Social Security or Social Security disability will not lose their benefits while in the program, which pays minimum wage during training. Employers do not pay the salaries for the seniors that come to work for them. Experience Works is funded through state and federal grants, as well as private donations.
Employers and participants can contact Lewis at 850-284-8629 or 727-376-2427 or email Charles_Lewis@experienceworks.org. To learn more about the program, visit experienceworks.org.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.