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Older U.S. workers finding new niches

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Forgive Elisabeth Brunson for being a bit befuddled about age discrimination complaints in the workplace.

She's 80. She's had no trouble finding work when she wants it. She's working full time. And, frankly, her current supervisor wouldn't mind cloning her if there weren't a lot of ethical bears to wrestle first.

"Elisabeth is knowledgeable, she's dedicated, she's a wonderful worker," said Diane McPherson, supervisor in the inbound customer service call center for National Seminars Group, where Brunson works in Overland Park.

Furthermore, Brunson is always willing to learn something new. Already a 120-words-a-minute typist, Brunson in the past six months taught herself the 10-key touch pad to speed up data entry on numbers-rich reports.

"I wanted to do better for myself, not to beat or impress somebody else," Brunson said. "I want to do the best I can and grow with it."

Every older worker isn't guaranteed the acceptance and contentment that Brunson enjoys. Tales abound of angry, older job hunters who feel put out to pasture.

Yet a survey released last year by OI Partners, a career consulting organization, found that workers with more than 20 years of experience landed new jobs in the same amount of time as younger workers — provided they kept their skills up to date and adapted to fast-paced work environments.

At the same time, changing demographics are welcoming older adults back into the workplace. As the baby boomer population bulge begins to retire, there aren't enough younger workers to take their place. Older people are filling the void and frequently exceeding performance expectations.

Douglas Powell, a psychologist at Harvard University Health Services, has studied "cognitive aging" and determined that a "substantial proportion" of those between age 55 and 72 score as well as or better than younger adults on tests of their intellectual vigor.

That's not to say age discrimination doesn't occur. Harvey Sterns, professor of gerontology at the University of Akron, sees a trend of lower wages, harsher performance appraisals and less training given to older workers, possibly under the assumption that older workers aren't adaptable or trainable.

Brunson's experience suggests otherwise. Her work history doesn't provide boilerplate answers for every older person, but her suggestions do provide sound job-hunting tips for others.

Brunson retired at age 69 after working as a secretary for about 50 years. She promptly got bored.

"I'm not domestic," she said. "I like the office environment, and I couldn't stand retirement."

So she volunteered three days a week at Providence Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., where she learned new word processing and data entry skills.

"I loved it, but after a while I thought I might as well make some money doing it," she recalled.

She responded to an employment sign she saw on the highway, which turned out to be from a temporary-staffing service. That agency didn't have anything for her right away, but the seed was sown. She applied with another temporary-employment agency.

"When Elisabeth came to us at the age of 76, we didn't have a bit of trouble placing her," said Ron Trachsel, owner of Trac Staffing Services.

Her first job assignment was to do data entry at Wolferman's Original English Muffin Co., where she worked for a couple of months. When that temporary job ended, she was placed at National Seminars for nine months. After that, Trac Staffing sent her to three or four other assignments before the call came to return to National Seminars.

Trac Staffing paid her $8 an hour and gave her something else:

"Confidence," Brunson said. "The temporary work was good for me. I used to be shy, almost afraid to lift my head up and talk to people. Being temporary helped push me out to meet people, to get into strange environments and learn new things."

National Seminars offered to hire Brunson full time after she'd worked there on contract with the temporary agency for more than three years. As a regular employee, she is eligible for the company's employee benefits package and the opportunity to earn commissions on any sales she might make while handling inbound customer service business.

"Some people say, 'She's 80 years old? You hired someone who's 80 years old?' I say I hired a great worker," McPherson said.

Some of Brunson's "retirement age" peers tell her they'd like to work, too. But, Brunson finds, they're often too particular about where and when they work or they've let their skills get rusty.

"Maybe the key is not getting out of the workplace for long. I never was, not since I was 17," Brunson noted. "I've never been one to let grass grow under my feet. You have to be flexible and open. You have to be willing to take what you get, work hard and then move up. You can't expect to come in at the top."

Trachsel said Brunson epitomizes a job-hunting strategy that he recommends to other older workers, whether they were laid off or are trying to re-enter the job market after retirement.

"You can get your foot in the door through temporary placements," Trachsel said. "Once your skills and work ethic are known, it would be hard to discriminate."