Sunday, March 13, 2011

Age discrimination concerns, tough choices and the WIA

As part of my search, I am also having to come to grips with the possibility that the news industry may not have any room for a guy with my well-established skills but who may not be as tech-savvy -- or as cheap -- as the budding journalist right out of college.

Age discrimination is illegal but darned near impossible to prove in the job-search market. It's difficult to hide the practice in the workplace because people -- employees -- notice patterns, and sooner or later, someone will blow the whistle. No company wants to risk the financial liabilities associated with any kind of discrimination lawsuit.

But in the job market it can happen and no one is the wiser.

Job applicants send in resumes and cover letters, or fill out forms on a website, and all too frequently never hear anything back. Most, like me, assume their experience or qualifications just did not stack up against others among the myriad resumes employers find themselves sifting through in this economy. What many of us do not consider is that we may be giving ourselves away with a resume that show 27 years of experience, for example, or a college graduation date.

So age discrimination among the ranks of the unemployed is pretty easy to imagine, particularly in the field of journalism, which already had been in decline even before it was shaken by the advent of the Internet and two recessions in 10 years' time.

So it was early last month that I talked to a career counselor at the Elgin Community College. Earlier, I had sent her my resume for her professional evaluation, and during my meeting with her, she gave it to me, in spades.

She liked the format and offered some very helpful suggestions for improving it, and frankly, I felt somewhat embarrassed – as a decades-long copy editor, I had missed some subtle miscues that popped right out when she called my attention to them.

I duly noted her observations and made plans to correct, rewrite, and reformat as needed. But one set of criticisms completely surprised me.

Anything that referenced my age, even remotely, had to go, she said, because it would work against me in an economy where younger means cheaper. She pointed to the upper quarter of my resume, where I proudly proclaimed my 27 years as a veteran journalist.

And, she told me, I should lop off a couple of older news jobs I'd held. Going back more than 10 years – or three or four jobs – on a resume was as much as declaration of your age as a birth date, she said.

She also was critical of a link on my resume to this blog, “Laid off at 51” – “You've got your age here,” she said, pointing to the blog link. “Why are you doing this?”

(I refused to remove the link or change the blog's name – by early February, my site metrics already were showing a trend that indicated “Laid off at 51” had become “my brand.” Those who did not come to this blog by bookmark or links via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn were googling “Laid off at 51” to find it.)

Ultimately, the counselor's observations pointed indirectly at one thing: Experience, which comes only with time, and age, are commodities that are less valued than I had been led to believe over the years.

That casual disregard for experience irks me, although I think print media companies simply are struggling financially to do the best that they can under very, very difficult circumstances. First, print media began losing readership after World War II. Then, 50 years and tens of thousands of lost readers later, the industry was hit by a significant loss of classified advertising revenue thanks to Internet sites like Craigslist. Finally, there were countless missteps and fumbles by industry leaders as they tried to steer the use of the Internet toward their own, very limited view of what this new technology represented.

I wonder now if the print media will ever recover, which is, in part at least, why I looked into some alternative training options.

When I first called, the job counselor had urged me to look into the Workforce Investment Act, a measure President Barack Obama signed into law and which now is being considered for cuts by conservative lawmakers.

Through the Kane County Department of Employment and Education, I learned that WIA provides a significant level of funding to retrain “displaced” workers like me – skilled, experienced workers who have been let go from jobs that may never return. The training can be toward either an entirely new career or to enhance a worker's existing skills with new training that would allow a transition into a related career.

And according to KCDEE's LinkedIn discussion page for the issue, WIA works: In Illinois during fiscal 2010, WIA-funded programs served 52,000 customers plus more than 10,000 dislocated workers impacted by trade.

So if the doors to continued work as a journalist are closed to me, I would hate to throw away that 27 years of experience. Prior to my 20 years as an editor, I spent my first seven years in the profession working as a reporter/photographer, gathering information about the community I lived in and writing it in a way that was plainly understood, fair, accurate and relevant to the readers.

Sometimes that meant writing about complex issues – as a reporter in Wyoming, water issues were big and complicated, and I eventually took quite a bit of pride in my growing expertise on the subject. But natural gas rates were probably the most challenging in terms of complexity and mathematics, and yet for all of that, they were probably of the greatest relevance to our readers because rising gas rates had an immediate impact on their wallets.

One of the highest compliments I ever received as a reporter was from my boss at the time, a guy named Chuck. The managing editor of a central Wyoming paper came to Rawlins to give us a tutorial on a contentious gas utility rate filing (he had a master's in business administration). His lesson clicked, giving me a clarity about the issue that made explaining it easy.

Several weeks later, after near daily coverage, Chuck's response was along the lines of, “I don't know how you make this so damned understandable.”

That was high praise from a guy who was a little shy to praise, which I think is why I remember it so well.

And that is the kind of experience – as a reporter who gathers, distills and interprets information, as a writer who carefully selects both words and sentence structure, and the years as an editor, learning to apply my craft to the works of others to ensure clean, well-written and understandable prose devoid of spelling or grammatical errors – that I do not want to throw away.

The KCDEE is trying to whip up support of an online petition asking Congress to leave the program alone. I'm inclined to agree. For the first time in my life I am unemployed. I want to work, but there appears to be few options for someone with my training and skills. Yet without something to make myself more marketable, my wife and I could lose the home we share with our five children. I know others who face similar circumstances.

Given the mortgage crisis, the government does not need any further stress in that part of the economy.

I did not ask for this to happen, nor did I bring it upon myself. The same is true of my former colleagues and my brothers and sisters at arms, as it were, who likewise find themselves victims of short-sighted media companies whose workers now are paying the price of industry executives' failings.

WIA may help me secure the training I need to find a related job either within the industry or
transition to something that will use both my existing skills and those I hope to achieve through WIA. Perhaps that training lies in the direction of desktop publishing, perhaps in the direction of becoming a webmaster or Web designer. Others like me are weighing similar decisions.

I'm trying to maintain a positive attitude about it all.

But folks, you need to know that WIA is important.