7 Secrets to Getting a Job After 50

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In what’s already a notoriously difficult job market – in a country weathering a major financial crisis – 50-plus job seekers can be forgiven for approaching an employment search with a bit of anxiety.

But it’s not all bad news. “There are great jobs out there,” says Robin Ryan, a vocational counselor in Newcastle, Washington, and author of Over 40 and You’re Hired! (Penguin, 2009). “I hear amazing success stories all the time, but you have to be creative and try different approaches than may have worked for you in the past.” Here are 7 secrets to a successful job search after 50.

Secret #1: Get social

A Twitter conversation led to a job for out-of-work financial adviser Susan Schwartz of Boston, who answered a finance-related question posted by someone she followed on the social media network. When she received a tweet thanking her for her answer, Schwartz offered her accounting services, and a job was born. You don’t have to be Twitter-savvy to find leads via social media; LinkedIn and Facebook are also deep resources for job seekers.

Don’t wait for an actual job posting. Instead, create a need or foster the connections, so that when someone expresses that need, you’re ready to fill it. This often means using conferences and social media to connect not just with those in your field but with those positioned to create new jobs.

How to do it: Start with a LinkedIn profile, considered an essential online resume, and get as many rave recommendations as possible from previous bosses and coworkers. (Many potential employers will go here first.) Then join every possible group frequented by those likely to hire you. Get familiar with all of LinkedIn’s interactive features, and use them to be an active presence on the site. Comment on conversations, post links that show you’re up on the latest developments in your field. Use Facebook, Twitter, Google +, and online networking groups and sites targeted to different professions to do the same.

“You don’t have to become an expert in social media, but it’s important to see its value in raising your profile,” says Julie Rains, a certified professional resume writer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Rains suggests thinking of social media in the same way you used to think of conferences and business networking groups – as a way to reach the people who can help you get where you want to go.

Secret #2: Buy one

A corporate downsizing left Leslie Samuels out of work in her mid-50s. Then she saw a notice of a franchise for sale in her area. Now she runs an in-home care agency and gets much more satisfaction out of serving her clients than she ever did from marketing insurance.

Tax services, home inspection services, cleaning services such as Merry Maids, and fitness and activity classes for children are among the franchise businesses that aren’t too expensive to get into and have a high rate of success, according to statistics from the World Franchising Network, which tracks the most successful franchise start-ups. But the variety of franchise operations available is seemingly endless, covering everything from commercial lawn maintenance to self-serve yogurt outlets to services that help people put up and take down Christmas decorations.

How to do it: Look at the financials carefully. The factors to take into consideration (in addition to your interests and qualifications) include the following.

  • Length of operation. Choose a company that’s been around at least five years.

  • Cost to buy in. The WFN selected only those that cost less than $100,000 to get started, and many cost much less. The initial fee for a Roto-Rooter franchise will set you back just $10,000 (plus equipment), a carpet cleaning franchise just $7,000, and a Jazzercise or Kumon after school learning franchise just $1,000.

  • Your financing. If you’re putting down cash, can you afford to lose some or all of it, at least in the short term? If you’re borrowing it, have you run the numbers to make sure you’ll be able to pay it back without penalties?

  • Transparency. Look for a documented track record; if the company keeps its financials secret, how are you going to know what you’re really buying into?

  • Closings. How many outlets of that particular franchise have closed in the past three years?

Secret #3: Sell, sell, sell

After being laid off from a major newspaper, 50-something business reporter Joanne Stern was interviewing the executive director of a nonprofit foundation for a freelance assignment when he confessed that the group wasn’t getting the media attention he’d expected.

“Well, that’s because no one understands what you do!” she responded unguardedly, then went on to explain ways the foundation could more effectively gain the spotlight and win the support of donors. Impressed with her candor and the strategies she outlined, he asked if she’d come on board to do marketing and fund-raising.

How to do it: Sell your ideas to the right people in creative ways. If you have ideas about how a company can better sell its services, build its client base, get mentioned in the press, or raise its industry profile, get an audience with key people and tell them how. If you can’t get in the door right away, work your way in. Ask for informational interviews, connect at conferences, comment on articles and blog posts about the company. Equally important, retool your resume to highlight hidden marketing and communication skills.

“Many people have marketing, sales, communication, and PR responsibilities in their work histories, but these skills are buried in their resumes,” says professional resume writer Julie Rains. She recommends describing measurable results in bullet points or highlights. Did one of your ideas trigger a new marketing strategy or generate increased revenues? Did you make appearances or speak publicly on behalf of a company in ways that generated attention? Highlight these, or list them up top. This may mean crafting a customized resume for each position you seek, which has become increasingly common, Rains says. If you think your resume may go through key word scanning before reaching a human being, pepper it with the sales, marketing, or communication-related key words used in the job description.

Secret #4: Build one

Do you have a hobby you love? What if it’s really your dream job in the making? Unemployed in his early 60s, Chuck Kloster of Colorado spent many hours in his workshop crafting furniture out of recycled wood, but it never occurred to him that it could be a business until neighbors began giving him commissions. Then a local furniture store asked to carry his cabinets, tables, and chairs – and now he’s running a thriving small business. Many of us have something we love to do, but it feels impractical or out of reach, says jobs counselor Robin Ryan. Preconceived notions and skepticism are the enemies here; instead you “just need to do it and see where it goes.”

How to do it: Make a step-by-step plan of action. Is there a craft fair or local store that showcases the type of product you make? Are there other people in the field you admire? If so, look at their websites and marketing materials and see how they’re getting the word out. If you need to build your skills, apprentice with someone who does what you want to do.

Use sites like Etsy and eBay to sell your wares online; many jewelers, printmakers, clothing designers, and others have set up individual sites within EBay and Etsy to make it easy for consumers to find their wares. Attend design showcases and conferences to show your products, and be generous about samples. You never know when one of your crafts is going to end up in the right hands, and from there to Oprah. Network with suppliers, too; the guy who sells you your wood or leather or jewelry supplies might tell others about you.

Secret #5: Make the right connections

Many people have a dream job, but it seems out of reach, either because it’s a stretch from what they did before or they don’t know how to get from point A to point B, Ryan says. What’s needed is to connect with the right people and gather the information that will help you take the next step. Peter Richards of Utah, an out-of-work contractor in his late 50s, dreamed of working outdoors as a surveyor. By talking to others in the profession, he found out about a local state college program that acted as a direct conduit into the state hiring system, thanks to a professor’s connections.

How to do it: Use social networks, both real-time and online, to spread the word, then ask for introductions. (LinkedIn and BranchOut make this easier with their search functions, which show you people who are several steps removed.) Meet with someone who does what you want to do and ask how they got there. Make a list of concrete steps to take. Is there a class, internship, or apprenticeship that would put you in line for it? Is there a specific skill needed in that profession that few people have? Go out and get it.

A specific computer or technical skill that’s seemingly unrelated can also get you in the door for desirable jobs, experts say. When Richard Roberts of Tallahassee, Florida, wanted to work as a trip planner in the adventure travel industry, he broke in by agreeing to take on secondary duties as the troubleshooter for the office’s computer network.

Secret #6: Reinvent one

Get a group of midlife people together, and you’ll hear one reinvention story after another. In fact, More magazine, read mostly by women ages 50 and over, now sponsors an annual “reinvention convention” featuring panels on how to create your “second act.” Of course, the stories of high-profile software managers turned chocolatiers and winemakers get the most attention, but there are also many quieter ways that over-50 job seekers reinvent themselves or rebrand themselves into a job.

Carolyn Pistone of Petaluma, California, lost her job as a property manager for a large industrial park when the portfolio she managed was sold. With few opportunities in her industry, Pistone, who’d long been involved with Green Key Real Estate, a residential real estate company dedicated to “greening” the homes they sell, approached the owners about opening a commercial branch. Her business, Green Key Commercial, just launched and is working with numerous organizations and groups to “green” commercial properties around the Bay Area.

How to do it: Whether you’re looking for a job or starting a consulting service, building your brand is the new catchphrase of career consultants, who say it’s all about getting known for having a specific type of expertise. A step-by-step plan:

  • Create a blog or website that positions you as the expert in your area of choice. (If needed, obtain whatever certifications or qualifications are required.) Freelance journalist Alisa Bowman of New Jersey launched a blog, Project Happily Ever After, about her successful experience saving her marriage. The blog turned into a book, TV appearances on the Today show, Fox, and CBS – and a new career as a marriage expert, workshop leader, and relationship advice columnist was launched.

  • Get high-quality business cards to advertise the new area of expertise.

  • Join professional associations and local groups in your new area of expertise. Meet others in the field and set up a referral network to direct clients, particularly to complementary fields. For example, advertising designers might refer copywriters and vice versa.

  • Offer yourself as a speaker in your new area of expertise. Join Toastmasters, Speaking Circles, and other public speaking groups if you need to develop your public speaking skills.

  • If applicable, offer classes or coaching services in the area of expertise. For example, fitness and nutrition expert Raquel Barrios of Corte Madera, California, founded the Marin Adventure Bootcamp for Women and started teaching weeklong fitness camps to establish herself. She also became certified as a personal trainer and lifestyle coach.

Secret #7: Move for one

For many people, this might sound like a last resort. But if you have your sights set on a particular career or field, moving to where that industry is healthiest – or where the job market in general is thriving – can be the ultimate secret to job-hunting success. Christine Lee of Washington, D.C., was having trouble finding a job in hotel management, thanks to the downturn in the travel industry. She contacted corporate management at her favorite hotel chain and offered to go anywhere in the world to get started. They asked if she could start in Tokyo in three weeks, and although already “55-plus” – and after a year without a job – her answer was, “Yes.”

Of course, a move that extreme isn’t always needed; sometimes the jobs are more plentiful one or two counties over, or in a neighboring state.

How to do it: Research, research, research. Look at statistics for positions listed and filled in the industries or fields you’re interested in. Talk to headhunters; they’re an endless source of information on who’s hiring and for what. If you have a particular region in mind, get current economic and labor market statistics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is a wealth of such information, and most state governments keep good data, too. Many job sites, such as CareerBuilder and Indeed, keep lists of the best places to find a job or have searchable city-by-city databases.

The differences can be eye-opening: Oklahoma’s unemployment rate has hovered between 5 and 6 percent for the past year, while California’s has been more than double that. Washington, D.C.’s wage growth is the highest in the country. Information like this can make it easier to decide where to settle for the next phase of your working life.

Next up: 10 Biggest Retirement Mistakes – and How to Avoid Them

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