Metro-East News

Older people can have a tough time getting back into the workforce. This program aims to help them.

znizami@bnd.com

Loretta Knox was a social worker who went through three agency closures, all after the age of 60. Now she has found a new way to work, thanks to a program for senior employment.

Knox, 69, has bachelors and masters degrees in social work from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. After 20 years working for a nonprofit agency, it closed due to loss of funding.

“Even though I had a master’s degree, I looked and looked and could not find anything,” Knox said. “Emotionally I was devastated, because I thought I would have that position forever.”

Eventually Knox found a job with a drug and alcohol program, which lasted only a few months before it too was closed due to loss of funding. Then she went to a counseling agency: funding was eliminated again.

“This was a job I really liked,” she said. “I knew one thing: working social services.”

Knox sought work within her field, and then applied for whatever she could get. At one point she applied to Macy’s, and was turned down as “overqualified.”

“It leaves you with a hole in your heart,” she said. “You don’t think you’re worth anything anymore… but you have to see what’s next for you in line.”

It leaves you with a hole in your heart. You don’t think you’re worth anything anymore… but you have to see what’s next for you in line.

Loretta Knox

Knox was eventually referred to a senior training program through AARP, which taught her new skills such as working with Microsoft Excel. Now Knox is one of dozens of seniors now getting help through Caritas, the nonprofit organization that split off years ago from Catholic Social Services.

In addition to its work on pregnancy care, counseling, adoption and family programs, centers for abused and neglected children and independent living for disabled adults, Caritas works to place senior citizens age 55 and older with employment subsidized by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The Senior Community Services Employment Program is a major part of the Older Americans Act, and the only federal program that focuses on unemployed older adults rejoining the work force. The grant covers the salary costs of 90 participants across 11 counties, so it’s just a start, according to Caritas spokeswoman Kelci Jones.

“Sometimes these seniors have been out of the work force for a period of time,” Jones said. “They may have had an illness, or a death in the family, or an injury that’s put them out of the work force. Sometimes in this age of technology, there’s that gap, and they need our services to help them develop their skills to get back into the work force.”

Sometimes these seniors have been out of the work force for a period of time. They may have had an illness, or a death in the family, or an injury that’s put them out of the work force. Sometimes in this age of technology, there’s that gap, and they need our services to help them develop their skills to get back into the work force.

Kelci Jones of Caritas

Gary Woods is the new program director, coming to Caritas from his previous position as assistant project director for the AARP Foundation in St. Louis. He said it all depends on what skills the seniors bring to the table; many will be placed in libraries or hospitals, for jobs ranging from janitorial to clerical and more.

“Our training program gives them the opportunity of working in a library or any number of things,” Woods said. “We don’t preclude them from anything. We ask them, ‘What would you like to do?’”

Knox said a lot of seniors come with lots of experience, but it can work against them because the employers think they will have to pay them more money. “They don’t say ‘You’re too old,’ but you know what’s going on,” she said. “Not everybody is looking for the same things I’m looking for; some want office work, or how to use a computer. Some don’t know how to write a resume or get on the internet to search for work.”

Jones said seniors sometimes feel out of place and think they have to chance to be hired.

“Sometimes it can just be that they were intimidated by the work force,” Jones said. “It kind of gives them that leg up, that confidence boost they need to get started.”

Jones said while they can only help 90 seniors at a time, they aim to turn over each position into full-time non-subsidized employment five times a year, helping 450 seniors a year. But even that would be much less than the need, she said; while she could not give specific estimates, the waiting list indicates there are thousands of seniors in need of the program.

“They may have retired and something has happened to their retirement, so they need an income,” she said.

Many of them, however, have had no retirement whatsoever, Woods said.

“That’s the sad part, that a lot of participants just haven’t generated the income necessary to save for retirement,” he said. “It’s not that if they just live a few more years they’ll have that income available to them. It’s that they may not have been given the opportunities to generate that income. Now they need to stay in the job force… to be able to get the experience they need to get the unsubsidized employment.”

That’s the sad part, that a lot of participants just haven’t generated the income necessary to save for retirement.

Gary Woods, Caritas program director

Madison and St. Clair Counties have the largest populations in need of the program, Woods said. Participants also must meet income guidelines; in order to qualify, the senior citizen must earn less than $15,175 a year.

“I believe it is the perfect time to build on current efforts to improve the economic plight of our 55 and older population,” Woods said.

Jones said it isn’t just helping the seniors, though; it helps the companies that hire the workers as well. The companies get hours of work time without cost, and access to mature employees.

Now Knox is at work - at Caritas. Her social work skills are helping Caritas with the very program from which she has benefited.

“You never get too old to learn,” she said.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

Interested in the Caritas senior employment program?

Contact Caritas Family Solutions at caritasfamilysolutions.org, 213-8700 (Belleville) or 258-8750 (East Alton).

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