Over 40 and laid off? Good luck

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At ages when many people are joining AARP or thinking about retirement, Jim Candee of Gales Ferry and Frank Siniscalchi of Hope Valley, R.I., have been scrambling to find work - for a year and a half.

"The American male identifies himself with the work he does," Siniscalchi says. "In the last year and a half, I've lost that identity."

The 56-year-old Candee was a chemist for "a major pharmaceutical company" and the 62-year-old Siniscalchi was a quality assurance manager at Rice Packaging in Ellington.

Their stories are indicative, according to work force analysts, of the difficulties faced by older workers in the region as they try to find jobs in the midst of an economy that's in a prolonged slump.

Workers aged 55 and over account for nearly half of the state's long-term unemployed, according to a report issued this year by the advocacy group Connecticut Voices for Children. And a study released this month by the Willimantic-based Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board shows that people over 40 who lost their jobs during the Great Recession are having a harder time finding new employment than in the past and are taking pay cuts averaging $4,000 a year when they do accept a position.

"The numbers are pretty scary," Montville Mayor Joseph Jaskiewicz, chairman of the work force board's Council of Chief Elected Officials, said in a statement released as part of the report. "Our data showed the clearest difference in the outcomes for older vs. younger workers."

Older workers are always hit hard after a job loss - even in the two-year period before the recession, salary cuts averaged a little over $600 a year for those age 40 and above who were laid off, according to the study. Younger workers, on the other hand, have seen pay increases of nearly $800 annually after a job loss during the recession, compared with a salary jump of more than $3,500 in the pre-recession period.

The numbers only reinforce the angst of older job-seekers like Siniscalchi, who has been unemployed since the beginning of 2009.

"I have two options - win the lottery or die," he said. "I try not to think about it. I only get more and more depressed."

Siniscalchi said he has sent out more than 300 resumes since being laid off, but believes he is being undercut by younger people willing to work for less and a perception among employers that he might not stay at a job for long because of his age.

"I'm getting an education in the reality of life," he said. "I'm understanding what a black man went through in the '60s trying to get a job."

Retraining is a key

Candee, who retired from the Coast Guard in 1999, admitted people his age have a perception that no one is hiring the older worker.

"Maybe I'm just too dumb to know age is a problem - I just pushed forward," he says. "My contemporaries, I've seen some of them just say, 'Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?' Some of them were just paralyzed into inaction. I was energized to do something, maybe out of desperation."

Like many older workers in the region, Candee had to reassess his job options at a time when, years ago, people his age might be talking about the possibility of golden handshakes rather than the reality of pink slips. And he gravitated toward health care, a popular field for people seeking a career change, eventually settling on a 10-month certificate program in surgical technology conducted at Eli Whitney Technical High School in Hamden.

Now, just a few months after graduating, Candee said he is juggling multiple job offers - at a good salary, though significantly below what he made as a chemist.

Candee's experience is consistent with the local work force study that called skill enhancement a key for people seeking re-employment during the recession. Not only were those who attended classroom or online training much more likely to find jobs, but the salaries offered were also significantly higher, according to the study.

"It really shows the importance of lifelong learning," said Ed Haberek Jr., Stonington's first selectman and vice chairman of the work force investment board's council. "The evolution of jobs has really changed dramatically."

And older workers are trying to adapt, according to the study, which found that while slightly fewer than half of the job-seekers at the four regional CTWorks career centers over the past two years were age 40 and above, nearly three-quarters of the region's online learners were in that age bracket.

"This shows that older workers are both willing and comfortable learning in a nontraditional format," Franklin First Selectman Richard Matters, who chairs the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, said in a statement.

Many older workers seeking retraining have looked toward the health care field as a place to find gainful employment, said John Beauregard, executive director of the local work force agency. Health care is one of only two employment segments in the area - the other being accommodations and food service - that have gained ground when comparing the pre-recession era of 2006-07 with the current economic doldrums, according to the agency's study, and Beauregard said it is the only one that will allow many older workers a chance to retain earnings.

The study found that while 76 percent of workers retrained during the recession have been able to find new jobs, 84 percent of those rejiggering their skills for use in the health care field have secured employment.

Health care field is stable

One of those taking advantage of retraining opportunities was Denise Mahoney of Stonington, a woman in her 50s who had been a contractor at Pfizer Inc.'s space-planning department until the pharmaceutical giant changed its way of doing business. Now a health unit coordinator at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital, she makes about half the money she once did but enjoys busy days scheduling tests, answering phones, paging doctors and generally acting as the communications hub for her area of responsibility.

"A lot of people tell me, 'I can't believe you changed careers at your age,'" Mahoney said. "But I like change."

She said it wasn't easy to get her foot in the door at L&M - she attended training courses and continuing-education classes and then volunteered at the hospital's pharmacy for several months - but meeting people face to face and jumping at suggestions eventually paid off.

"At my age, as long as I can pay my bills, it doesn't have to be the best pay," Mahoney said. "The health care field is not going away; it's a good, stable place to go."

Candee, the surgical technologist from Gales Ferry, couldn't agree more, and he's already looking forward to putting his new skills to use. He, like Mahoney, quickly embraced the changes in his life, recognizing three days after the shock of losing his job that his life wasn't over; he had other challenges ahead.

"I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders and I had been given a present," he said. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I can do something different now,' but I must choose wisely because at my age I don't know how many times I can reinvent myself and have the energy to do that."

But Siniscalchi, the unemployed quality-control manager from Hope Valley, said he feels his options are limited. He took a course in lean manufacturing techniques at Eastern Connecticut State University, has looked into teaching and even dabbled without much success as a consultant.

"I've had great interviews, but they always call back and say they found somebody else," he said.

Siniscalchi's biggest concerns revolve around keeping his house and sending his 17-year-old son to college. His wife works as a substitute teacher's aide, but a 23-year-old son living at home remains unemployed.

"I'm not Goldman Sachs," he said. "Nobody's bailing me out."

While Siniscalchi's previous job paid about $75,000 a year, he said he'd be willing to take $60,000, while employers are looking to offer $50,000 at best. At some point, he said, a survival job such as being a greeter at Walmart wouldn't be out of the question.

"Once unemployment runs out," he said, "I'm willing to take almost any pay cut."

Age makes a difference:

Wage changes for older and younger workers who lost jobs and then found new work:

AGES 22-29
BEFORE THE RECESSION:
Wages up $3,583 annually
AFTER THE RECESSION:
Wages up $772 annually

AGES 40-PLUS
BEFORE THE RECESSION:
Wages down $640
AFTER THE RECESSION:
Wages down $4,003

SOURCE: Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board

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