According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for persons ages 55 and older has increased steeply since the 2008-09 recession. Many were laid off in favor of younger employees, who are more familiar with new technology, leaving older workers with obstacles to support themselves and their families.
The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh is working to improve the lot of older, lower-income job seekers with the Mature Workers Program, which gives eligible workers on-the-job training for up to four years at local non-profits.
Michelle Thompson, a job development counselor for the program, says the National Urban League has ranked Pittsburgh’s program first in the country for three of the six years the initiative has existed.
“We’ve been very successful,” said Thompson. “This past year, we have had 49 placements, and those placements are in a variety of entry-level positions: clerical positions, maintenance positions, food-service positions.”
There are currently 98 enrolled, which Thompson says is average. Enrollment is open year round, and anyone age 55 or older who falls within the poverty guidelines is eligible for the program. Once accepted, each trainee is assigned a case manager, who will help the job seeker identify what he or she wants from the program.
“What are your goals?” Thompson asks trainees. And if their goal is to get a job then, “How are you gonna get there? What is your plan of action?”
Based on their interests, trainees are placed at a non-profit organization, where they work an average 15 hours per week and receive minimum wage paid by the Urban League, which receives the funding from the Department of Labor. At work, participants learn basic computer skills--a key factor for finding work.
“The biggest thing is the technology. You know, them trying to just get back into having the basic computer skills… A lot of our participants have never filled out applications online. If haven’t been working for the last 15 years, the last time they filled out a job application, it was paper.”
According to Thompson, the goal of the program is to get participants into permanent job positions. If job-seekers want to open their own businesses or do work that requires certification, such as food or janitorial service, the Urban League will help them find the classes or programs they need to succeed.
“We have not had anybody who wants a job and we’re not able to land them somewhere,” said Thompson. “But it’s not guaranteed that we’re going to place you within the 48 months.”
Many participants are returning from jail or coming out of retirement to help their families financially. Thompson recalled one success story about a man who served more than 20 years in prison, entered the program, and now supports himself with a union job. She said those are the kind of successes the program was meant to create.
“If you don’t have computer skills, if you’re just getting out of jail or if you have a record, an extensive record, or whatever their case may be, and they are looking for employment, then we’re here to help,” said Thompson.