New Wrinkle in Hiring: Older Workers Taking Kids' Temp Jobs

This Halloween, there's an extra supply of gray hair and wrinkles at Party City, a costume and novelty store on Route 4 in Paramus, N.J. They don't belong to costumes but to the store's work force -- seasonal hires whom manager Paul Buccola calls his "career people" -- older workers with impressive resumes who are desperate for work.

Holiday retail jobs that used to go to high school kids are being snapped up by job-seekers in their 40s and 50s. Guys with master's degrees are selling rubber noses, and counting themselves lucky to be employed, says Buccola.

Buccola says he has five such career people working for him now. How many did he have this time last year? "Zero." He calls it "a direct reflection of the economy."

Employers nationwide say they are seeing the same phenomenon: Older people, some of whom have been out of work for two years or more, are swallowing their pride and foraging any kind of jobs that they can get, part-time, seasonal or otherwise.

"It's a growing trend," says Bill Coleman, vice president of research for RetirementJobs.com, which he describes as a combination job-board and advocacy group for job seekers over 50.

Interest in part-time work, he says, "goes up as the stock market goes down. People living off their 401(k)s see the balance drop and realize they have to do something. A little supplemental income is exactly what they need."

Estimates vary for how many temporary jobs will be added to the economy this holiday season, but most agree the pie will be about the same size as last year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says it may shrink by 1 percent. That means every job taken by an older worker comes at some other job seeker's expense, including the young.

Should older workers feel guilty for shouldering aside the high school or college students? No, says Coleman, who dismisses this as an unproductive line of thought for older job seekers. "Yes, true, you're competing against high school kids. But you've got to get over that. You've got to just snap out of it," he says. "You do what you have to do to survive." He dismisses the suggestion that oldsters are taking bread out of youngsters' mouths, saying of the young, "Their parents will fill that void."

Carl van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers' Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, says, "One thing I can tell you: Workers in this climate don't agonize over who else's job they're taking. For one thing, they don't know. And for another, they just don't think about that. Why should they? It's the employer's decision." He notes that the impact of the recession has been especially hard on people over 55, who have the lowest re-employment rate of any age group.

Older workers possess attributes employers value, especially when it comes to part-time retail jobs: They're highly reliable, says van Horn, and they tend to have a better work ethic than the young. The fact that a job is temporary lessens their resentment of the fact that it is paying them a fraction of what they earned before the recession hit. "They're not going to be complaining that they're not paid enough, or that their skills aren't being used, because it's temporary," he says.

Before the recession hit, Andrew Harvey, 66, who now lives in East Texas, was the second-highest ranking HR manager at one of the biggest hospitals in Kerr County. Laid off, he learned that finding work "was very difficult to do at 65." But his wife was sick, and he needed to make sure she had health coverage. Then, too, he jokes, he and she had gotten used to "this bad habit of eating regularly." He figured that if they were going to keep on eating, he'd better take whatever kind of job he could find.

He eventually landed a part-time Christmas job at Macy's selling women's shoes. He's also worked part-time as a shift manager for Taco Bell.

Being older, he has learned, sometimes works to his advantage. Referring to employers who do not require pre-employment drug-screening tests, he asks, "What do you suppose they get, in terms of applicants? Pretty crummy ones.

"They don't even know what work is," he says. "Most kids today know how to play video games but not how to sweep the floor. I had to show a high school graduate how to use a broom -- literally."

He also found he had to manage his own attitude about taking work he'd previously have rejected as beneath him.

"The key for the older person," he says, "is you have to bring your expectations to the right level. You can't say to yourself, 'I've got a son who is a doctor, and I'm working here at Taco Bell!' You have to realize you can be happy or sad. You have the ability to decide."

Before she was laid off, Tammy McCune, 50, of Fort Worth, earned $75,000 a year as an HR manager for Computer Science Corp. She now makes $7.63 an hour selling jewelry nights and weekends in a Kohl's department store. She got hired the week before Thanksgiving -- two years ago.

She says she'd never had a retail job before, and it's not one she ever would have taken if she didn't have to. But after 18 months without a job, she was grateful to be hired. She finds standing on her feet for hours physically hard. Plus, she says, "Dealing with the general public is different. Everybody wants something for nothing. If there's a 50 percent discount on the jewelry, they ask why it isn't 75 percent. I was used to working in a professional environment. In corporate America, you just said: That's the deal, take it or leave it." She says, "I miss corporate America."

At the time she was hired, it occurred to her she might be taking a younger person's job. But like other older workers interviewed for this story, she says, "You do what you have to do, to survive."

To unemployed adults reluctant to follow her example, she says she'd recommend they do, not so much for the money as for what having a job does for one's sense of self-worth. And having part-time work on your resume, if you're looking for a full-time job, shows a potential employer that you're a go-getter and not content to sit home and collect unemployment.

Russell "Rusty" Zander, 57, of Lawrenceville, Ga., went through six months of unemployment after he was laid off from his full-time job as a transportation manager for a local nonprofit. First, unemployment became scary for him, then depressing. "It was tough," says Zander. "I didn't have any money coming in, except for unemployment. My wife and I get along really well, but I was driving her crazy by being around the house all day. I'm the kind of person who has to work. I'm a lot happier when I do, and it's easier to stay out of trouble, too."

He got a temporary job for Stone Mountain amusement park, making snow for its Snow Mountain attraction. The pay $9 an hour, which was a big step down in pay. To swallow that bitter pill, he says, "I kind of had to play a little mind game with myself. I told myself I was retired, and this was just part-time retirement job." The real fact, he admits, is that he can't afford not to work, let alone to be retired. "I adjusted to it," he says. "It's easy when you don't have any alternative."

He received what he calls a valuable lesson, earlier in life, about survival: "When I was working my way through college, I went down to Louisiana to try to get a job offshore, on the oil platforms. There was a month there when I was unemployed and had to live in a swamp. I realized then how quickly hunger will make you do whatever becomes available. I try to maintain that perspective now: If you get hungry enough, you'll do just about anything -- anything that's legal, of course."

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