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Back on the job market

Sun., Feb. 8, 2009, 6:27 p.m.

Mara Greene was initially frightened and worried about returning to the job market for the first time in years. But after almost a year in the AARP WorkSearch program, she said, "I don't feel too old for the workplace any longer. ... Now I feel quite optimistic."  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Mara Greene was initially frightened and worried about returning to the job market for the first time in years. But after almost a year in the AARP WorkSearch program, she said, "I don't feel too old for the workplace any longer. ... Now I feel quite optimistic." (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

For years, Mara Greene had a plan.

After years of creating ceramic mugs and selling artwork from her Soap Lake home and store, she’d sell the property and retire to Spokane on the proceeds.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t sell,” said Greene. “And that turned into: I needed to get a job.”

So, at 62, Greene finds herself going out on interviews and filing applications for front-office jobs. Like so many people who are at or near retirement age, Greene has seen the economy overturn her expectations for life after work.

People are delaying their retirements and staying on the job; some are coming out of retirement and back into the work force, after finding their nest eggs don’t stretch as far as they thought – or after taking a pounding in the stock market.

A new survey of Washington residents by AARP found widespread concern about retirement savings among all age groups – 71 percent of those polled were worried about the security of their retirement accounts.

But the anxiety and impact is most acute among those around retirement age. More than half of those age 50 or older say they thought about pushing back their retirement last year, and about 60 percent of them say they’ll consider doing so this year if things don’t get better. Of people who are already retired, 18 percent said they’re considering going back to work.

Ingrid McDonald, AARP’s advocacy director in Washington state, said concern about retirement runs through all workers. But concern is especially sharp among those about to retire or already retired. “They don’t have time for (the stock market) to recover,” she said. “They don’t have a couple decades for it to swing back up again.”

Even among those with decades until retirement, though, the big losses in investments is prompting a retreat from the market. A quarter of all workers surveyed stopped putting money in their 401(k)s and retirement plans last year, and 14 percent pulled money out of their retirement savings – often paying big penalties to do so.

“It’s understandable, but it’s deeply concerning,” she said.

She said AARP, which has about 40 million members age 50 and older nationwide, advises people that the current financial crisis makes it more important than ever to save for retirement.

At 79, John Heffman, of Spokane, saw his retirement savings shrink last year. That, plus a restless need for “something to do,” brought him to the offices of AARP’s WorkSearch program in Spokane last week.

“We have lost a lot of money on this economy – $50,000, $60,000 probably, and it hurts,” he said.

Heffman and Greene were at the WorkSearch office last week. A federally funded program run by the AARP, WorkSearch helps low-income people who are 55 and older develop their work skills, prepare to seek work and ultimately find jobs.

The program pays its clients minimum wage while they work temporarily at nonprofits and government agencies around town to polish skills. Steve Reiter, project director, said his office has slots for about 140 clients. A year ago, they had openings. Now there’s a waiting list.

“We’re finding much more demand for our program,” Reiter said. “We try to find people a permanent job. … We’re quite successful at it. We place about 70 percent of our participants every year.”

Returning to the working world is often challenging for older people who haven’t had to look for a job in years. Greene said that many of her fellow clients in the WorkSearch program ask themselves, “How did I get here?” A decade ago, it wasn’t in their plans to be writing a new résumé and cover letter, filling out job applications, and in some cases training for an entirely new job.

“It’s a big jump for a lot of us,” she said.

Some older workers say employers are often looking for younger workers – but Reiter said that others value the “soft skill attributes” of older folks, such as a stronger work ethic, punctuality and loyalty.

Greene produced a line of handcrafted, high-end ceramic mugs at her home and storefront in Soap Lake for 15 years. Several years ago – in different economic times – she bought a condo in Spokane, where she now lives.

In 2007, she closed her business and put the property up for sale, but it hasn’t moved. She joined the WorkSearch program in March, has worked in a temporary “placement” at the Spokane Parks Foundation and taken a three-month course in front-office skills through the Institute for Extended Learning. She was paid minimum wage for that time.

In recent weeks, she’s been working steady at looking for a job. She had one interview last week – and had an offer she had to turn down because it was an overnight shift. She’s optimistic she’ll find something, but she’s also considering offering her services to small businesses on a contractual, one-time basis – taking care of bookkeeping or office tasks.

It isn’t exactly the future she had pictured for herself. For one thing, she feels younger and more vital than she expected, she said.

“Sixty is the new 40,” she said. “I planned to be really old at this age. I’m not.”

And after a few months in the WorkSearch program, she’s no longer intimidated by the notion of seeking – and finding – a job.

“I don’t feel too old for the workplace any longer,” she said. “Now I feel quite optimistic.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or

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