WorkingNation & Heldrich Center Town Hall raises awareness of the mid-career workforce skills gap

The first WorkingNation Town Hall focused on problems stemming from long-term unemployment of middle-aged workers and solutions on getting them back to work.

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It began with WorkingNation’s stark warning about an impending employment crisis.

But the mood at our first Town Hall on “Re-skilling the Mid-Career Workforce” shifted from concern to understanding to laughter as our panel of business leaders and academic experts discussed solutions to a crowd of more than 200 at the Victoria J. Mastrobuono Theater in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Tuesday’s event, which began with WorkingNation’s animated short “The Slope of the Curve” and featured the debut of a WorkingNation mini-documentary about the New Start Career Network, was filmed for New Jersey Public Television to be aired this month.

Presented in conjunction with the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University and moderated by PBS NewsHour anchor Hari Sreenivasan, the town hall focused on the challenges of long-term unemployment due to automation or offshoring of jobs, especially for workers over the age of 45.

“Other than the death of a family member or close friend, losing a job is the worst thing that can happen to someone,” Heldrich Center Director Carl Van Horn said.

The trauma of losing a job and the added embarrassment of a long job search- fraught with tricky application processes- can have a cumulative effect on older workers, leading them to drop out of the job hunt feeling worthless and uncompetitive. This causes mental health problems, disrupt families and increases the social burden to communities who have to deal with the compounded ills.

Moderator Hari Sreenivasan and the town hall panel (L-R): Amanda Mullan, Carl Van Horn, Kimberly McLain, John Colborn and Jane Oates. Photo -Jonathan Barenboim

“A big part of our identity is in our work, and when you take away the work, you take away the identity,” JEVS Human Services Chief Operating Officer John Colborn said.

But as the national unemployment rate heads lower and the job market opens up more opportunities for baby boomers, our panel suggested that helping these workers assess and build upon their experience is what could solve the skills and employment gap.

“Job seekers need to recognize their skills from a previous job will be valued by the next employer,” WorkingNation Executive Committee member and former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor Jane Oates said.

The Heldrich Center’s New Start Career Network is helping these workers build their confidence through resumé writing workshops, networking events and career coaching. Following our short film on the NSCN, Sreenivasan brought out director Maria Heidkamp, who went further into her organization’s mission.

“We want to help them navigate this job market,” Heidkamp said, “We want them to stay positive and put their best foot forward.”

Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

Part of this process involves NCSN coaching up its participants on the new rules of employment and teaching them to stay focused on building their writing and communication skills.

“I get asked, ‘Should we Botox our resumés?'” Heidkamp said.

The laughter that emanated after Heidkamp’s joke belied the seriousness which the job search can entail. As one audience member said during the question and answer session, staying on the job hunt is a 24/7 process where “putting on the suit every day” is half of the battle.

Yet it is this type of rethinking that mid-career workers must do to understand that the game has changed for them and what worked in the past isn’t going to work today.

“We have a static workforce. Employees need to look at their careers like a lattice and not a ladder anymore,” panelist and Senior Vice President and Chief of Human Resources at New Jersey Resources Amanda Mullan said.

And employers are also recognizing that they must adapt their recruitment to discover untapped resources of talent being molded at the NSCN and beyond.

Kimberly McLain. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

“Employers understand they can’t do the same thing or they will get the same result,” Newark Alliance CEO Kimberly McLain said.

What is developing at Rutgers is part of a growing movement nationwide to retool higher education to better fit students of all ages and deliver a skilled workforce capable of performing the tech-dependent duties which are increasingly in demand. Colborn said that the “traditional age” of the college student is no longer the case these days and the education system must adapt to include and nurture the needs of mid-career workers.

“There aren’t many entry level jobs anymore,” Colborn said, “We need a better way of equipping people and we have a lot to do to update curricula.”

The panelists react to comments from our WorkingNation Facebook page. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

Colborn was supported by the testimonies from our Twitter and Facebook audience who emphasized that mid-career workers have demands of their own which compete for the time required for skills training.

“I was a college student at 43 with 18-year-old classmates. I still had bills to pay and normal responsibilities of an adult,” Ted Prohowich said on Twitter through our #WorkingNation hashtag.

Easing the difficult transition of re-skilling and overcoming a one-size-fits-all degree mentality in higher education should be a priority for universities and community colleges now. But training older workers to enter the burgeoning gig economy might not be what they need.

Carl Van Horn. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

“People who like gig jobs tend to be in their 20s, not their 40s or 50s,” Van Horn said, “They like to know when they get up the next day that their job will be there.”

The gig economy also presents problems when it comes to a social safety net. Audience member Michele Martin asked what further assistance these workers need to survive, re-skill and get back to work. The panel said that untethering health insurance from employment and creating a “portable benefits package” will be ways to strengthen a household’s economy to deal with employment shocks and the sporadic nature of gig or freelance work.

Ultimately, providing economic security and getting mid-career workers to rediscover what is within themselves are most important tasks for counselors and educators. With a little bit of self-confidence and new skills, these workers can defy stereotypes or job search algorithms and move beyond expectations.

Town hall moderator Hari Sreenivasan. Photo – Jonathan Barenboim

A telling anecdote from our moderator, Sreenivasan, hilariously illustrated the need for self-reliance and persistence when it comes to the job hunt. If he had stayed with that advice, his journalistic bearing charm would have been sorely missed at the Mastrobuono.

“My high school counselor told me I’d be a speech pathologist or circus clown,” Sreenivasan said.

Join the Conversation: What do you think are the challenges facing mid-career workers as they attempt to join the new economy? Tell us what you thought about the panel’s solutions on our Facebook page.

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