Looking at 50
The odds may be against engineers who are over age 50 and looking for work, but there are ways to improve them.
BY MATTHEW McLAUGHLIN
wo years ago NSPE member Keith Mullins, P.E., was principal engineer of a manufacturer of security gate operators. Then he wasn’t.
“I got removed from my position,” he says. “At the age of 57, I was suddenly out on the job market.”
Despite decades of experience with companies like Boeing and Microsoft, Mullins struggled for five months to find another engineering position. In fact, he struggled to get even an interview at first.
“I found that by shaving the first couple decades off of my resume, I ended up getting interviews,” he says. “This, did not result in job offers, however.”
Mullins’s experience with the US job market is not unique. The median duration of unemployment for those age 45 and above is more than 20 weeks. For all younger age groups the median duration of unemployment is less than 16 weeks, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“There really is age discrimination out there, whether people want to talk about it or not,” says Renée Ward, founder of the online career center Seniors4Hire. An engineer with a client of hers in the aerospace industry has told her the company will not hire older engineers. “They’re going to hire younger engineers right out of college, who have no practical experience, and pay them less money.”
None of this is evidence age discrimination runs rampant. Many companies, especially those involved in engineering, are increasingly seeking knowledge and experience, according to recruiting and staffing provider Aerotek.
“It’s important that job seekers don’t underestimate the power of their knowledge, experience, and perhaps most importantly, their ability to teach others, particularly younger professionals” says Stuart Ferguson, executive director at recruiting and staffing company Aerotek. “These are things that should be leveraged and highlighted in resumes or any prospective job conversations.”
There are a lot of reasons, not rooted in age discrimination, older job seekers have a harder time than their younger counterparts. Hiring practices are simply not the same as they were 15 to 20 years ago, so anyone who has been with one company or in one position for more than a decade may find they aren’t familiar with the new conventions.
“It used to be that you would give a general resume so that no matter who was looking at it, it covers something that they would be looking for,” Art Koff, founder of online job and information resource Retired Brains, cites as an example. “Today, in the electronic age, people get so many resumes they don’t have time to look at them, and so basically it should be tailored specifically to the position to which you are applying.”
In order to compete with engineers in their 20s and 30s, more experienced and older engineers, for the most part, need only do what their younger counterparts are doing. It’s just a matter of learning or refreshing one’s memory as to what that is.
The Job Hunt
At any age, finding a new job begins with searching for a position that suits you and your skills and experience. At this stage, the most important thing an older engineer can to do is nothing new.
“Our biggest piece of advice for job seekers looking to land a new position is an age-old strategy, but in our opinion, the most effective approach to securing employment—networking,” Ferguson says. “The majority of people find their positions through referrals and networking.”
“A lot of people, as they get older, stop networking and don’t go to their association meetings or maintain relationships because they don’t see as much of a need, and that’s obviously a tremendous mistake,” adds Koff. “If they’re interested in continuing to work they must maintain those relationships.”
If, like Mullins, an older engineer loses a job rather suddenly, it may be too late to be proactive about networking. Though all is not lost.
“Experienced job seekers should rack their memory, working backwards from their most recent job, and identify the name of every person with whom they worked, people within their department, other departments, direct reports or managers, external contacts such as salespeople or consultants, peers who hold the same title or responsibilities within other companies, and recruiters who called in the past,” Ferguson says. “Reconnect with these people, whether directly by e-mail or through social networking channels like Facebook or LinkedIn. Simply let this newfound network know that they’re available or in transition, what kind of work they’ve been doing, and ask to be put in contact with anyone who values those skills and experience.”
Networking, as it turns out, is exactly how Mullins was able to get back to work as an engineer. After five months with no luck, he reached out to someone he knew at a product design and engineering company and asked about working on a project-by-project or contract basis. Shortly after, he was interviewed and given a contract, which eventually led to a full-time job offer.
“Develop a network of people,” he says. “You have to develop that. That’s important. If no one knows you’re looking, how else can they give you a position?”
Mullins has actually been offered several full-time positions but continues to work on a project-by-project basis. Despite his choice not to seek a full-time engineering position with any one company, he believes working on a project-by-project basis is the best way to get such a position.
“They like to test drive you,” he says. “They like to take you out and see what you can do.”
“Employers are moving away from full-time employees, whether they are 50-plus or straight out of college,” Ward explains. “For whatever reason employers are hesitant to give employee benefits and pay the extra payroll taxes.”
Even when applying for a fulltime position, expressing an interest in working on a project-by-project basis may be a good idea.
“The toughest thing is getting in the door, and once you have relationships established within an organization, you’re just that much closer to a full-time position,” says Timothy Driver, founder of the online career center RetirementJobs.com. “That would be a great thing to ask, particularly if the answer is no when it comes to the full-time position.”
“That gives [you] a leg up on other people who would only want a full-time job,” Koff adds.
Resumes and Interviews
Once you have some jobs for which to apply, the next step is writing a resume that will get you noticed and invited for an interview. For some, that may mean learning the current expectations for resumes.
To begin, resumes need to be written with a specific job and employer in mind. What this basically means is providing details only on your experience, education, and abilities relevant to the position.
“Take the information that is not very applicable off,” Koff explains. “That doesn’t mean that you’re lying on your resume, it just means you’re giving more space to the areas that the hiring manager at that company wants to read.”
For an older engineer, another important thing to keep off a resume is past experience. As Mullins found and some experts suggest, this may help you slip past employers discriminating against older job seekers and get to an interview, but once face-to-face it becomes pointless. More important is that including too much past experience makes a resume unreadable and employers just don’t care about much of it. Ward recommends cutting things off at 10 years.
“Nobody is going to read a five- to 10-page resume these days,” Ward says. “The truth is that nobody really cares about 20 years ago. They want to know what you’re doing currently.”
Another important thing to exclude is a career or job objective at the start of the resume. In its place, at the top of every resume, should be a summary of relevant experience.
Ward, Koff, and Driver all highly recommend seeking help from a professional resume writing service.
“It’s a good idea to have a third party evaluate your resume,” Driver says. “You know, as the job seeker, the most about your qualifications, but it’s always helpful to have another set of eyes and a trained professional help you with the editing and to understand what’s going to stand out and make you look the most attractive to an employer.”
At the end of the day, a resume takes you only so far. It gets you in the door. What really counts is the interview, and there are numerous ways this can challenge an older engineer looking for a new job.
Pride may not be a challenge for everyone, but when it is, it may be the most difficult to overcome. Older employees may have to answer to younger employees in the workplace, and everyone needs to be okay with that.
“I’ve seen some folks in that [older] age group walk in thinking that just because they’ve got 25 to 30 years on the job that that gives them an extra something,” Ward says. “They’ve got to get rid of that attitude. It doesn’t cut it.”
“One of the chief objectives of an interview is to get you to be seen as a cultural fit for the organization,” Driver says. “You need to be making yourself appear as though you are ready to fit right in with the rest of the workforce there, and what that includes is being ready to take direction, potentially, from somebody younger.”
Another challenge an interview may present to an older engineer is that they may not have any recent experience giving a formal interview.
“You absolutely must practice your interviewing skills,” Koff says, because you don’t want to make mistakes when interviewing with a company you want to work for.
Practicing with family and friends may help, but Koff highly recommends applying for jobs you may not be especially interested in as practice. In fact, he says, someone with no recent experience giving interviews should be “desperate” to interview as many places as possible.
Once older job seekers have honed their interviewing skills, the rest is easy—let your experience and accomplishments speak for themselves. Don’t take that literally though. Finding a job hasn’t changed that much; texting hasn’t made its way into interviews yet.