Opportunities seem limited for those not quite ready for retirement

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 22, 2011

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — Jackie Benfield, 73, spent two restless years in retirement before deciding she needed to get out of the house.
Now, she can unleash her enthusiasm and energy — and capture some needed income — working part-time at the nature center at Dan Nicholas Park.
Benfield said her favorite part of running the ticket booth for the park’s Wildlife Adventures attraction is connecting with people. She especially enjoys when groups of children come by.
“I tell them to give me a high five, and they walk up to me and I lean out the window,” Benfield said, “but what I’m doing is looking for untied shoes.”
She not only looks out for their safety but helps them get excited to see the animals, gathering them close and telling them the names of the bears and the eagles.
“It just means so much to me to be here,” she said. “I was in the furniture industry for 50 years. This is different, but it gives me joy.”
This week, National Employ Older Workers Week recognizes the importance of older workers in the labor force.
Between 1977 and 2007, employment of workers 65 and older increased 101 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Total employment only increased by 59 percent during that time.
According to the bureau, a larger portion of seniors are staying in or returning to the labor force.
But job seekers of any age may have trouble finding work in today’s economy. Older adults can face even greater challenges because of their health or the negative assumptions of others.
Benfield said she doesn’t think there are many job opportunities for seniors. Cashiers in many stores tend to be young, she said, while older employees sweep the floors or greet customers.
“I don’t want to greet; I want to work,” Benfield said.
Still, Benfield doesn’t mind doing a little greeting and sweeping while she’s on the job. On rainy days like Thursday, she eagerly cleans the nature center building and offices, playfully scolding her younger co-workers for leaving messes.
Rufty-Holmes Senior Cent-er helps run a community service employment program for adults 55 and older who meet income guidelines. Those positions are 90 percent federally funded through Title V of the Older Americans Act. Rowan County provides a 10 percent match.
Currently, 28 people are in the program working in a variety of places, including the Employment Security Commission, Rowan County Airport, Abundant Living Adult Day Care and Rowan Helping Ministries.
Bob Pendergrass, director of the nature center at Dan Nicholas Park, said he hires about one Title V employee a year. Benfield is one of them.
After having her on board for two years, Pendergrass hired Benfield this month when the funding for her position ran out. He said the employment program is a great help to the nature center, especially when recent budget cuts have prevented him from hiring someone right away.
“We get two years with these folks working with us and training them to work at the nature center,” Pendergrass said. “Then, it gives us an opportunity to pick from some trained people to hire them.”
He said working at the nature center involves interacting not only with animals, but also with people, which he thinks is a strength of many seniors.
“They’ve worked in variety of situations … and dealt with a variety of personalities over the years,” Pendergrass said.
Marie Sofley, Title V Supervisor at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center, said she is “flooded with calls” from people interested in the program, but only a limited number can enroll.
“When I took over the program in November of 2004, most of our calls were usually people 60 to 65 years or older,” said Sofley, 80. “Now we’re getting more at 55 years, as well as more males and veterans than previous years. I think that’s because of the economy.”
Director Rick Eldridge said the senior center employs several people over 60.
“Older workers are good workers,” Eldridge said. “They’re reliable and trustworthy, and they have a strong work ethic. … It’s hard for me to understand why employers would not want to hire older workers.”
But some don’t, he said. Even though age discrimination is illegal, some seniors still say they’ve been turned down for jobs because they’re too old.
Salisbury resident Steve Simpson, 64, lost his job as director of the American Red Cross chapter in Rowan County when the agency restructured. During the seven or eight months he was unemployed, he said, Simpson had three job interviews.
Simpson said he felt like he was turned down in large part because of his age, not his experience or qualifications. One interviewer asked him if he felt like he had the energy to do the job, he said. Simpson replied, “Of course I do.” The interviewer then asked if Simpson was thinking about retiring soon.
“They seem to be so afraid of hiring seniors because, I believe, they’re afraid you’re going to quit, retire or be too expensive to hire,” Simpson said. “But that’s not the case right now. I know seniors that will take anything they can get.”
Eldridge finally called Simpson earlier this year and told him about a job opening at the senior center. Simpson has worked there since July 1, helping connect other senior adults with resources to help them.
“I took a pay cut to come here, but I’m grateful to be working here,” he said. “The biggest thing for me was it gave my dignity back. I’ve never been without a job.”
For more information about resources for older adults, call Rufty-Holmes Senior Center at 704-216-7714.