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Young workers face skilled rivals

By need or choice, more older people stay on job

College graduates such as Nathan Coltrane are looking to land a good job right smack in the middle of one of the toughest economies of the past three decades.

Coltrane, 23, is about to earn a photography degree from Eastern Washington University. His goal is to land a production job with a Pacific Northwest-based video or media company.

But if his search stalls, he has a backup plan, he said. He’ll work for his parents in Vancouver, Wash., where they run a real estate company.

As Coltrane and thousands of graduates try to launch careers, their odds for success are undercut by a trend among older employees: More of them are working past retirement age. After losing vast amounts in their retirement accounts, more workers are reluctant to retire. And many Americans simply want to work longer.

As a result, more employers now see a range of job candidates, from college graduates through those in their early 60s. Many jobs being filled by older workers might otherwise have gone to younger college graduates, said Kathryn Tacke, regional labor economist for North Idaho with the Idaho Department of Labor.

One such “recareer”-minded worker is 52-year-old Victor Frazier, who works as the bell captain at the Spokane Athletic Club in downtown Spokane.

In 2000, Frazier retired from the Air Force, where he had been a KC-135 navigator. He then worked as a financial adviser, first with Morgan Stanley’s Spokane team, then, after being laid off, with two other firms. In April 2008 Frazier stopped working and decided to re-examine his plans. He decided to start looking for work in the hospitality industry.

Before the economy tanked, Frazier thought he’d be fine working a part-time job. But when the stock market flattened his retirement accounts last fall, he decided he needed to work full time.

“My goal is to have my house all paid off,” Frazier said. He also plans to continue cautiously rebuilding his retirement fund and his IRAs with his full-time income.

He landed the Spokane Athletic Club job last October. A bell captain, he explained, performs a range of job duties. “My job is to be friendly, helpful and courteous,” he said. He spends his day handling any club member concern – from calling a taxi to helping someone carry out a package.

Compared to his former salaries as an Air Force navigator and a financial adviser, his pay now is “paltry,” Frazier said. “But I really do enjoy this job. I look forward to coming to work.”

Tacke and other economists have noted that the number of people 65 and older working in payroll jobs has increased considerably faster than the total population working those jobs.

Meanwhile, the number of men and women reaching retirement age is surging.

Whether it’s due to economics or healthier living, far more workers 55 and older are staying on the job, or taking a new job, in Spokane and North Idaho, Tacke said. And many employers now view 55-and-older workers as productive and valuable, she added.

“It seems to me that 60 is the new 40,” Tacke said.

Data show that from 2007 to 2008, the number of workers 55 and older being hired increased in both Spokane and Kootenai counties, while the total area work force decreased.

Even so, college graduates can still land good jobs if they have skills employers can use. While fewer companies are hiring today than two years ago, using one’s connections and shining a spotlight on one’s strongest skills can make a difference, said Mary Heitkemper, director of Gonzaga University’s career center.

The fields with the most jobs for area graduates have been engineering, nursing and accounting, Heitkemper said.

Other surveys of the Northwest show that companies are filling jobs with college graduates in the areas of green technology and lean manufacturing. Companies focusing on green technology find ways to produce cleaner energy and help other businesses and individuals consume less power. Lean manufacturing jobs often are filled by engineers or technicians who find ways to streamline how products are made and distributed.

“You definitely have to work harder and smarter,” Heitkemper said. “You need to use the resources available to you and to activate your network” of friends and others already working, she added.

She and other college career advisers urge students, and even graduates, to take an unpaid internship with a potential employer.

Heitkemper can point to two recent graduates now in full-time jobs in their preferred areas after having worked as interns last year.

One is 21-year-old marketing major Erin Arai, who took a job as social media manager at The Purple Turtle, a Web design and communications consulting company based in Spokane. The other is engineering graduate Michael Steeves, an application engineer for Post Falls-based 3-D design firm Quest Integration.

Arai and Steeves took internships with those companies last year, then parlayed the experience into full-time jobs a year later.

In Arai’s case, her enthusiasm and interest in online social networking persuaded her employers to hire her after graduation. Her boss, Purple Turtle co-owner Brad Greene, didn’t even have a job for social media manager until he asked Arai to fill it. That job evolved from working with companies that told Greene they’re looking for better ways to connect with their customers.

Much of what Arai does is finding strategies for companies to use online social sites like Facebook or Twitter and developing ways to engage with people who use those services.

Arai helps companies, such as Taste, a downtown Spokane eatery, develop their blogs and find ways to reach new customers.

Steeves worked with Quest Integration last year and enjoyed the opportunity to work in a small technology company where people bounce ideas around easily.

As he came closer to graduation, he tested the job market by sending his résumé to three regional engineering firms. One was Quest, where he had already been told he could have a full-time job after he graduated.

The other two companies did not call him in for an interview. One of the firms told him it wasn’t hiring. The second company, in the Seattle area, told him it wasn’t likely to hire someone right out of school.

“They told me they were able to take their pick (in the Seattle area) from experienced engineers who were looking for jobs,” Steeves said.



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