For Laura Appleton, the unemployment benefits ran out long ago. She now lives on freelance work that pays about one-third of her former six-figure salary as a researcher at the California technology firm, Sun Microsystems.
Though she holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Boston College and an MBA from Boston University, she has searched unsuccessfully for full-time work for more than three years, landing countless interviews but never an offer. Appleton, 57, believes employers have balked because of her age.
“I’m not ancient, and I am able. My skills are current, and I can demonstrate that,” said Appleton, who lives in Watertown, “But I’m frustrated, and I talk to others who feel the same way. I feel like [shouting], ‘Legislature, do something for us!’”
The Legislature is deciding whether to do just that as the Senate considers a jobs bill, including a proposal to target some retraining funds at unemployed older workers, such as those age 50 and above. The bill would allocate $10 million to replenish a worker retraining fund depleted in the aftermath of the recession, while requiring a still unspecified portion of that money to be dedicated to grants to retrain older workers.
The Senate could take up the legislation as early as this week. The funding, including the older workers provision, unanimously passed the House last week. The special aid for older workers was added to the House bill by an amendment by Representative Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown Democrat who says he has seen older constituents and friends who lost jobs in the recession struggle to find work.
Workers over 50 represent a demographic that ‘seldom if ever’ receives specific funding for retraining.Andrew Sum, Northeastern professor
‘The presence of older workers can be a competitive advantage.’Center on Aging & Work, 2008 policy brief
“These are often people who have children in college and have other bills to pay,” Hecht said. “Even though the job market appears to be improving, I think we need to do more.”
Workers over 50 represent a demographic that “seldom if ever” receives specific funding for retraining, said Andrew Sum, an economics professor at Northeastern University who studies how joblessness affects different segments of the workforce.
This may be due to two factors, Sum said. First, because of cost, time, and financial obligations, older workers often avoid going back to school, hoping to get reemployed quickly, he said. In addition, states tend to focus training programs on younger and low-income workers who have better success rates finding jobs.
Laid-off older workers often have trouble finding new jobs because employers can hire younger candidates at lower salaries, Sum said. Sometimes, older workers lack up-to-date skills to fill specialized or technical positions; other times, it’s just age discrimination.
“I can’t say automatically that it’s going to work,” Sum said of the proposal to target retraining funds at older workers. “But considering the dire situation here, it’s worthwhile to test it out.”
Since the recent recession, long-term unemployment among older workers has soared. The average duration of unemployment in Massachusetts for people between the ages of 55 and 64 was 54 weeks in 2011, up from 22 weeks in 2007, and nine weeks in 2000, according to Sum.
Joan Cirillo, chief executive of Operation ABLE of Greater Boston, a nonprofit that offers job training programs for older workers, said nearly half of people collecting unemployment benefits in Massachusetts are 45 and older.
That high percentage, she added, does not include discouraged workers who stopped looking for work and are not counted in unemployment estimates.
The pending legislation “is a very important way to get our workforce retrained,” Cirillo said. “Here’s a shot at trying to get these job seekers involved in some kind of retraining.”
In a 2008 policy brief, the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College said lawmakers and policy makers should do more to help unemployed older workers because it could affect long-term economic growth. States with lower unemployment rates and slow-growing populations such as Massachusetts may have difficulty attracting businesses because firms may anticipate difficulty in recruiting workers.
The Massachusetts unemployment rate was 6.3 percent in April, compared with 8.1 percent nationally.
“State leaders might try to work with employers to identify labor market populations that have been undertapped, including older workers,” the brief said. “The presence of older workers can be a competitive advantage.”