Looking for a job was an exercise in frustration for Mike O’Bryan, and nothing was more aggravating than the interview.
His 25 years in information technology turned out to be more a liability than an asset. Employers looked at the 60-year-old applicant and asked him whether he might be “overqualified.”
“I guess my age scared them,” he said. “They must have thought that if they hired me, I’d retire soon.”
After a dozen disappointing interviews, O’Bryan decided to become a self-employed financial planner. With retirement nowhere on his horizon, he helps his clients plan for their golden years.
“I’m now my own boss. It’s OK,” said O’Bryan, who lives in Grapevine, Texas.
The weak economy is putting a squeeze on workers in their 50s and 60s. Having spent their career with only one or two employers, many are looking for work for the first time in years. Some have been laid off. Others have taken buyouts but can’t afford to retire. Still others are coming out of retirement because their nest eggs have shrunk.
Workers 55 and older take an average of 21 weeks to find a job, about five weeks longer than younger job seekers, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.
Older workers who suddenly have to apply for another job may be “out of practice” and not know how to make their pitch to employers, said Renee Ward, founder of Seniors4Hire.org, an online community for mature workers.
“The world has changed since they last went job hunting, and some don’t have a clue what to do,” she said.
The interview can be especially intimidating to workers over 50. So career counselors who coach them try to prepare them for it, going over how to dress and act and even how to answer the tougher questions they’re likely to be asked.
“Your resume may get you in the door, but how you handle the interview determines whether you get the job offer,” said career consultant Jill Pfaff Waterbury of Coppell, Texas.
Waterbury, who’s co-author of the “Boomers’ Job Search Guide” and teaches a community college course for older job seekers, said no one can survive an interview without conveying a professional image and confident attitude.
Here are some tips that she and other job search experts give for accomplishing that and landing an offer.
– First and foremost, brush off that chip on your shoulder. “If you don’t believe that your age and experience would be assets to potential employers, why should they believe it?” said Renae Perry, director of the Senior Source’s employment program.
“The best way to dispel those stereotypes about older workers is to make sure you’re not that kind of person,” she said. “Be flexible. Be willing to keep up with new trends in your field. Be computer-savvy.”
– Work on your image. Even applicants with a can-do attitude can defeat themselves with a slothful appearance, Waterbury said. “No one expects you to look like you’re 20, but you should look neat, trim and up-to-date,” she said.
High on Waterbury’s to-do list: Lose those extra pounds you’ve been toting around. Leave that ill-fitting suit or outfit in your closet and buy something new. If you don’t trust your fashion sense, ask your friends for advice.
Beards are a big no-no with Waterbury because she believes they make men look older. Too much jewelry should also be avoided, she said, because it can be a distraction.
– Don’t be rattled if your interviewers are under 30. “Show them respect,” Perry said. “Keep your conversation on a professional level. You’re there to convince them you can help them. But don’t overdo it and make them think you’re after their job.”
Younger workers value working in teams, so play up any experience you have with working on projects alongside colleagues of all ages, she said.
– Don’t be shy, but don’t talk too much, either. “Though older workers dislike bragging on themselves, a job interview is no time for modesty,” Perry said. “No one else will walk through the door to tout your qualities, so it’s up to you.”
Still, some applicants literally talk themselves out of a job by continuing to banter long after they’ve answered the interviewer’s question, she said. “Stay focused. Talking about your children or grandchildren won’t get you a job.”
Waterbury said interviews often begin with the general question: “Tell me about yourself.” Stick with your professional life – your accomplishments, your skills and how you would be a good fit for the job, she said.
– Anticipate the age-related questions. Asking applicants whether they’re overqualified may be another way of suggesting they’re too old or too expensive, so how well the prospect responds can make or break the interview, Waterbury said.
“A good response is to say outright that your top priorities aren’t title or money,” she said. “Emphasize that you’re a hands-on person who, because of your experience, can hit the ground running and can be trusted to get the job done.”
Sarah Drake, who’s 60 and lives in Coppell, spent most of her life in banking but now wants to work at a nonprofit agency on housing or women’s issues. She’s thought hard about the skepticism she may encounter from interviewers.
“I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a ‘mature worker.’ To me, that means I have a lot of patience, I’m a loyal employee, I have a strong work ethic, I don’t require supervision, and I have a lifetime of experience. There’s no way I’m retiring.”
– Practice, practice, practice. Older workers who haven’t looked for a job in years will find that interviewing styles have changed. Many companies now screen candidates through phone interviews, Perry said.
“Don’t be blindsided by the call,” she said. “Prepare for it as you would an in-person interview. And when the call comes, find a quiet place to talk so you’re not distracted by what’s going on around you.”
“Behaviorial interviewing” has also become popular, Waterbury said. That involves asking applicants how they would respond to specific problems or situations, such as a conflict with a co-worker.
Camille Kramer, coordinator of career and employment services at the Jewish Family Service in Dallas, conducts mock interviews, videotapes the sessions and then does critiques so her clients can work on their rough edges.
“Most people have to be talked into it, but they’re often glad they did it,” she said. “They see some silly facial expression or hear some awkward response, and they suddenly have the motivation to do better.”
– Don’t leave without asking point-blank for the job. “Tell the interviewer you’re more convinced than ever that you’re the right person for the job,” Perry said.
“And then ask when the company will reach its decision.”
– Finally, she advises job applicants to send a note of thanks the same day. “Make it a handwritten note. In this day and age of e-mail, that personal touch will be remembered.”
Dos and don’ts for older workers in interviews:
– Go online and research the company.
– Leave those white shoes and belt in the closet and buy a new wardrobe.
– Stress your interest in learning new skills.
– Emphasize you’re computer-savvy.
– Wear a beard, especially if it’s graying.
– Tell your interviewer he’s about the same age as your son.
– Talk about the “good old days.”
– Say you’d like to work for only a few more years.