What is today’s senior employment scene?

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Holding aloft a smart phone, Vergil Wibben joked to an audience of older workers recently gathered at East Side Neighborhood Services that when he had to get one for his job, he looked at the smart phone blank screen and relaxed.

“That’s cool. Nobody is going to bother me,” he said, smiling.

Happily for Wibben, 65, who has rapidly advanced at Professional Transportation, Inc., and now also sports a pager, his lively electronic arsenal testifies to his successful reentry into the workforce.

And by extension, each beep or vibration might be seen as a digital thumbs up for the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), the bridge that eased Wibben and thousands of other older workers back into jobs.

Created by the federal Older American Act, SCSEP offers subsidized, service-based training for unemployed, low- income workers, 55 and older, by paying $8 an hour for 20 hours per week, for jobs in libraries, daycare, schools, and other community facilities.

“It takes you out of the house, off the couch,” Ernest Ellis, an SCSEP participant, who works at Redeemer Health and Rehabilitation, said.

East Side Neighborhood Services, which locally manages SCSEP, has served more than 2,000 through the program and witnessed many move into unsubsidized jobs.

Business representatives appearing at the SCSEP event testified to the quality of SCSEP workers.

“I know they’re going to show up,” said a Redeemer Health and Rehabilitation official. And their life stories simply resonate more with nursing home residents than those of high school volunteers, she said.

Older workers in general seem to be keeping their chins above water in the labor pool, but face obstacles.

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, in 2013 the unemployment rate among Minnesota workers ages 55 to 64 was about four percent. By comparison, the unemployment rate among teenagers was about 15 percent.

Older workers seeking jobs are steadfast. During a 12 month period through September of this year, the percentage of discouraged workers — workers who want jobs but have quit looking because they don’t think they’ll find one — was highest among the 25 to 54 age group.

Although there are no hard and fast statistics about age discrimination, Sara Rix, a senior strategic policy advisor with American Association of Retired People (AARP) said discrimination is a problem. While employers have very positive attitudes about older workers’ personal attributes such as loyalty and dependability, they express reservations about their computer competency and ability to learn new things, Rix said.

Older workers have much higher average durations of unemployment and are much more likely to number among the long-term unemployed, she said.

Further, though it’s illegal to discriminate against older workers, it’s not illegal on job applications to ask for graduation dates, date of birth, other information that reveals the applicant’s age, Rix said.

A willingness to be flexible on the job is important for older workers, she said, because employers often mention inflexibility among concerns about older workers. The very nature of work today requires businesses to remain nimble to be competitive, she said.

Wibben, who has 84-year-olds working as drivers shuttling railroad crews through busy railroad freight yards, looks at these active octogenarians with awe.

“That’s an example of what seniors can do,” he said.

If interested in learning more about SCSEP, people can contact East Side Neighborhood Services program coordinator Ron Lee at 612-787-4066.

The grip of the Great Recession on employment is easing. Minnesota’s unemployment rate was 4.1 in September, the lowest in eight years. But it isn’t uniform.

Unemployment among African Americans, for instance, in September was about ten percent with the rate among Hispanics or Latinos at about eight percent.

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