Outside the Box: 6 tips for older workers who want to get a new job this year

United States

It’s been almost two years since Venice Strachan-Singh accepted an early retirement package from Verizon VZ, +0.41%, her employer for 28 years.

Strachan-Singh, 53, of the Bronx, N.Y., is not second-guessing her decision to take Verizon’s retirement offer. “The timing was right,” she says. “I was a client service program manager, and it was a high-pressure job. I was burned out and had family issues that needed my attention.”

The problem: she didn’t have a plan for what she was going to do next. “I left thinking I was incredibly marketable with tons of experience,” Strachan-Singh says. “I figured that as soon as I got the family stuff squared away, I would be back on the horse, back in the job market, and everyone would welcome me.”

That didn’t happen. When Strachan-Singh tried to land another similar position in client or customer service, it “was a rude awakening,” she says. “I went back to what I knew and had done for most of my life, and nothing came through.”

Read: The greatest risks retirees face today

At 50+, it was “a growing up moment” for her, she says. Like many job seekers in this age cohort, trying to replicate a previous job is tricky, and the rejection can be shattering. “I thought I was such a star at what I did, and it would be a breeze to find another job, but it was a tremendous blow to my ego,” Strachan-Singh says. “My self-esteem went down the tubes.”

She focused on exercising, yoga, walking her dog, and praying. “And then COVID came, and there were people who were bigger stars than I thought I was who were losing their jobs,” Strachan-Singh says.

Read: Trying to figure out how much to save for retirement? Good luck with that

She couldn’t shake the nagging feeling of “woe is me,” she says. “But I realized that wasn’t going to get me very far.” She heard about a volunteer opportunity serving meals to children from a friend and signed up to help. “That has been my saving grace,” she says. And on the career front, she began attending online alumni events and seminars offered by her alma mater, Baruch College.

“The alumni sessions opened my eyes,” she says. “I realized there were a lot of people like me out there, a lot people trying to figure it out, a lot of people unemployed and frustrated, and it really helped. I just listened and realized that there is still hope for me.”

Importantly, it’s through that alumni outreach that Strachan-Singh connected with New York City-based career coach Nancy Ancowitz. “In many ways, working with her has been more therapeutic than career directional,” Strachan-Singh says. “It’s been lifechanging — like talking to a therapist.”

The biggest boost: Finding her focus. “Nancy has helped me narrow who I want to be when I grow up,” she says.

One of the first assignments, for instance, was to develop her elevator pitch. “I was looking at all of the things I know how to do,” Strachan-Singh says. “I can do this and that, but I couldn’t find where I would really shine because there was too much I felt I could do.”

The vision gradually began to emerge. “Nancy helped me realize that I want to be a college professor,” Strachan-Singh says.

And she advised her to double back to her circle for more support. So she’s picking up the phone and calling people. “I had networked early in my job search, but I was embarrassed at the beginning to not be employed,” she says. “I felt ashamed like I failed somehow when no one was hiring me. You have to be in the situation to realize how awful it is.”

One new mentor, for instance, is an acquaintance of her mother who has pushed her to look into ways to incorporate her business background with her degree in history as a pathway into teaching.

To dip her toe into the education field, she has begun earning some income as a substitute teacher in the New York City public schools. “It’s low hanging fruit, but I can make some money,” Strachan-Sigh says. “And there’s flexibility, while I work on the next steps in my career, which include pursuing my dream to teach history on a college level.”

More advice from career coach Ancowitz

I reached out to Strachan-Singh’s New York City-based career coach Ancowitz for bonus advice on what workers over 50 need to do to get a job this year. Here are six of her tips.

Be compassionate with yourself. Looking for employment can feel demoralizing even when you’re in your prime and during a strong job market. The rejection that is inherent in any job search can be hard at any age. We’ve all heard that it can be a numbers game—in other words, don’t take rejection and radio silence (also known as ghosting), personally. Still, for those who haven’t navigated the job market in a long time, it can be an especially cold shock.

Take stock of the strengths, skills, and experience. If you’re not sure what they are, start searching for keywords in job postings that interest you. Those keywords reflect what hiring managers are looking for—and what you need to include in your resume, LinkedIn profile, and other job-search related documents. One useful source if you could use help identifying your strengths is the CliftonStrengths Assessment.

Consider a new direction. If you’re not sure what path would be right for you at this point, resources like the free Occupational Information Network (O*NET) website can help you, especially during COVID, when in-person access to your local library may be limited. One of my favorite features that O*Net offers career-path explorers is its database of jobs. It also provides the educational requirements of a given profession, whether it’s a growth field, if there’s a “hot technology” you’ll need to know, and what a given job typically pays, by state.

Freshen your resume and LinkedIn profile. Much has been written about computer applicant tracking systems (ATSs), which screen resumes based on the keywords they’re looking for. Be sure your resume has the keywords you find in the responsibility and skill descriptions of the jobs you’re interested in.

Surround yourself with positive people. That might mean reconnecting with some you’ve lost touch with over the course of your career. That might also mean distancing yourself from those who reliably say all the wrong things, like going on about how much golf they now play during their early retirement.

Network. One of my favorite tools in the job-search tool kit for candidates is the informational interview, or “coffee chat,” which can also be done virtually. Get to know people in the field or organizations you’re interested in for information, advice, and introductions to possible opportunities.

Follow up on all leads and circle back to the person who introduced you to keep them posted on how things went. If you’ve got years and possibly decades of experience, reach out to your former bosses and co-workers, fellow alumni, as well as colleagues you’ve met at conferences, workshops, affinity groups, and professional organization gatherings. Think of who you know as well as who you could ask friends and colleagues to introduce you to.  

Show gratitude to everyone who helps you in your job search. Many job seekers forget this step. A little thank-you note, or email can go a long way. Plant seeds to connect and show gratitude.

My Advice to You

Now for a parting tip from me:

Get-up-and-go. I can’t resist adding to Ancowitz’s final action step with my favorite mantra for job seekers:

Networking is just one letter away from not working.

Be daring and make that phone call, set up that Zoom chat, send that email. Research compellingly shows that more than half of all jobs come through a network, and I strongly believe that the percentage is even higher for workers over age 50.

Connect with as many people from your network as feasible. Gather their insights and suggestions. Always ask them the most vital question: ‘Who else should I talk to?’

Breaks can crop up in unlikely places.

Kerry Hannon is a leading expert and strategist on work and jobs, entrepreneurship, personal finance and retirement. Kerry is the author of more than a dozen books, including Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home, Never Too Old To Get Rich: The Entrepreneurs Guide To Starting a Business Mid-Life, Great Jobs for Everyone 50+, and Money Confidence. Her on Twitter @kerryhannon

Read our Retirement Tip of the Week: Why you shouldn’t get sucked into the GameStop drama