Seniors re-entering workplace get help from Jewish agencies

Whatever the reason, you must work — and you're worried. As a senior citizen, how do you enter the workplace successfully?

For many older adults seeking employment, the first order of business is to break through self-made barriers, says Jane Field, a career counselor at Jewish Vocational Service in San Francisco. "Maybe they don't understand what skills they have, or the fact that they have gray hair gets in the way."

Field, who counsels job-seekers of all ages, says everyone needs to assess his or her skills and set short- and long-term employment goals. But frequently, clients ages 50 and above "are concerned about being older, or they're concerned about not having recent work experience, or they're concerned about their work history in general — that they don't have a whole lot.

"Our expertise is in helping people with these issues."

The nonprofit JVS offers one-on-one career and employment counseling, as well as group workshops on job-search skills such as resume writing, interviewing techniques and career development. It has a comprehensive resource library and keeps an updated listing of current job openings: Anyone can walk in and pay $2 to peruse the 40 thick black binders detailing Bay Area employment opportunities.

In choosing a direction, Field says, "sorting through priorities" is key for job-seekers.

"Do they need money as soon as possible? Do they have a `survival job,' but they don't like it? Are their [work] skills current?"

Beyond that, Field says that before accepting a job offer, older job-seekers must consider their comfort level regarding the ages of their potential co-workers.

"If they're approaching an organization where not one of them has gray hair, they have to decide, `Do I really want to be there?'"

Discerning whether or not one has been a victim of age discrimination is a "judgment call" that must be very carefully considered before taking action, in Field's opinion.

"If they feel they have been discriminated against and they can prove it, that's going to take some time in their lives," not to mention much stamina, to pursue.

For anyone needing a job, however, Field calls the JVS a "good place to get started."

There are many other resources as well.

Utility Workshop, a division of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, employs seniors, emigres and people with disabilities for high-quality, hand-assembly jobs for Bay Area businesses. Many of its workers come through referrals from other Jewish agencies, director Steve Simon explains.

One relatively new program, called Step to Work, earmarks older, recent emigres from the former Soviet Union for on-the-job training. They not only receive a wage, but also get medical benefits, job training and English language classes. The effort, says associate director Toba Olson, has been "an incredible success."

Many of the 50-to-60-year-olds "were out of the work force" in the former Soviet Union, but received subsidies under the socialist regime. Here, their benefits are skimpier.

"When they came here it's been a rude awakening that they do have to go back to work," Olson says. Approximately 30 individuals were assisted through this "welfare-to-work"-type program, and funding is being sought for its continuance.

Similar employment efforts are under way in the South Bay.

Rosa Levit, vocational service coordinator at Jewish Family Service of Santa Clara County, says a number of her clients are older "refugees who came to us from Bosnia, Russia, Iran," as well as older Americans who have lost their jobs. In Santa Clara County, she adds, most of the openings are in the computer sector or in offices, where clerical work is needed.

"I try to help them through my network," she says.

One of her valued contacts can be found at the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a national nonprofit funded by the federal Older Americans Act. Sue LaForge, director of the National Council of Aging Project in Santa Clara, which oversees the program, says her network of 60 Bay Area employers includes many Jewish agencies, as well as agencies in the private sector.

"We use nonprofit agencies as training sites for people," LaForge says.

To learn more about opportunities, she suggests calling or visiting the local Office of Aging.

Seniors seem to have the best luck finding employment in the service sector, according to LaForge. Retail and office work, information and referral, data entry and intake positions are often available, while senior-care and child-care opportunities are growing rapidly. Program participants work 20 hours a week, receiving minimum wage and benefits.

But more important, they get their feet wet in the working world. And often, in time and with added experience, these workers are offered permanent, full-time positions.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.