Helping NYC seniors land their next gig

A Citibank representative reviews a participant’s resume. The bank has openings for tellers at multiple locations and often promotes from within. Photo: Megan Conn

A fall job fair for those 55 and up, run by the city

By Megan Conn

After spending her entire career running programs for seniors, Denise Baker suddenly found herself on the receiving end. Baker was struggling to find a new job after an extended recovery from surgeries on both knees. The city Department for the Aging helped the lifelong Bronxite land a position in Senior Services at the Bronx Borough President’s Office, where she’s now worked for three years. “It’s surreal, because now I’m the senior that I took care of,” she says.

Each year, about 500 unemployed people ages 55 and up participate in intensive job training and placement programs run by the city’s Senior Employment Services division. Many found a return to work necessary after weathering disruptions caused by illness, injury, caregiving, loss of a family member, or a move. On a recent morning, 140 seniors hustled through the agency’s hallways, on their way to meet with the two dozen employers present for the fall job fair.

The job fair supports the final step of the employment program: securing a direct-hire position. To prepare, participants first start out by working part-time at a government agency, where they earn about $900 per month, supported via federal grants. At the same time, they take classes in computer technology and customer service, attend resume and interview workshops and receive one-on-one career advising.

Carmen Cuyar Alvarez was attending the job fair for the first time. She discovered the program a few months after fleeing her home in San Juan following Hurricane Maria, and is now working part-time in the city’s Grandparent Resource Center while searching for a direct-hire role. After a temp agency at the fair invited her to interview for a secretarial role the next week, she declared, “I am enchanted with this program.”

Employers also saw value in the event. Across the room, Steve Silverberg was interviewing candidates on behalf of Spanjar Signs, one of eight companies new to the fair. One conversation in particular caught his attention. “I was showing her our logo, and she started telling me about its meaning,” he recounted. “I should hire her just because she researched our company!”

The job of preparing candidates to leave positive impressions belongs to Director Maria Serrano, who has focused on workforce development for more than 40 years. She says creating positive interactions is critical both for current and future program participants. “I tell them, ‘You cannot let us down because we are opening a door. You have to respect that opportunity, because if you don’t it could close a door for the one behind.”

Even after a participant is placed, case managers follow up with them weekly to ensure they are successful in their new role. Serrano says they look for ways to continue supporting participants: “We ask them, ‘What do you need? Are you having a situation? How can I help?’”

The agency often helps seniors address life circumstances that impact their employability. For those with limited language proficiency, the agency runs English classes. It also helps seniors secure stable housing. Sometimes, that means helping a senior move from a homeless shelter to a rented room, or connecting them with financial aid to help round out a month’s rent.

“They don’t have resources, they don’t have money,” Serrano says of those entering the program. “Often, they are only living off of social security, which is such an insufficient amount in New York City today.” Census data shows that the proportion of seniors in the city living below the poverty line — 18.4 percent in 2016 — is already double the national average and rising.

Accordingly, retirement is out of reach for many seniors, including Denise Baker, the former senior program operator. At 68, she says “I need to work, for now. I’ll work as long as I can so I can have a bank account again. I’m thankful that I’m a young senior.” Baker had to spend most of her retirement savings while out of work after surgery. When she is able to retire, she already knows one thing she’d like to do. “I want to take at least one cruise,” she says.

Meantime, she and all program participants know they will make at least the city minimum wage, which will rise from $13 an hour to $15 next January. Seniors with in-demand skill sets can make even more. Last year, program participants were hired into data entry jobs that pay $20/hour and maintenance positions at Port Authority that pay $26/hour.

While many program participants find financial stability, continued funding for Senior Employment Services is uncertain. The division’s entire $4.5 million dollar budget stems from federal grants administered by the Department of Labor. In his 2018 proposed budget, President Trump proposed eliminating these grants entirely, though Congress ultimately elected to maintain the program.

The agency’s funding is set to remain stable for three years, but administrators say they don’t take anything for granted. Serrano says, “We wish we had more funding to serve more, but it’s not so. This is on the chopping block every year. It’s always in the back of our minds — how long do we have?”