Almost one-third of Americans say they’ll need to work into their 80s because they can’t afford to retire earlier, according to a recent Harris Institute survey. But in light of the difficulty even younger professionals face to find work, how will large numbers of older professionals — who are vulnerable to age discrimination, unspoken though it may be — be able to land new jobs, promotions or change sectors, if they must?
Even if you’re well into your late 50s or 60s, don’t be defeatist: I have, over the years, seen many professionals from this age group land new and better federal jobs.
My advice to older applicants, which is based on interviews with dozens of federal managers: Show hiring managers why they should hire you over a younger applicant they could probably pay less than you. Demonstrate your breadth of experience and prove to them that you’re enthusiastic, current in your field, eager to learn and relearn, collaborative and flexible. Dash stereotypes of older professionals as rigid, dowdy, outdated and tired. In other words, even if you‘re an older professional, don’t act “old.”
■Your application’s purpose is to help you land interviews and avoid being rejected sight-unseen because of age discrimination or other reasons.
■Your one-page cover letter should concisely highlight your most relevant credentials — whether or not you earned them via your most recent professional, educational or volunteer experiences.
Also, consider providing a personal anecdote that demonstrates your passion for the subject at hand. This strategy helped a seasoned photographer leap from a box store to a marine-based agency.
The photographer’s cover letter impressed her future boss by stating: “Although I currently work at X, I seek a position that would allow me to contribute my extensive photography experience gained at Y and Z science-based organizations.”
Her letter also mentioned her recent participation in a tourist dive to the Titanic — underscoring her enthusiasm for her target agency’s mission as well as her vigor.
■Explain in your letter special circumstances, such as your willingness to relocate or why you have a gap in your work history. As one hiring manager advised, “Don’t let important questions go unanswered.”
■Don’t expect hiring managers to find the needle in the haystack — they won’t. Edit your resume ruthlessly. Federal applications require applicants to cover only their most recent 10 years of experience, so include earlier jobs only if they relate directly to your target job. Limit job summaries to descriptions of your best achievements; purge any that won’t realistically help you get hired, no matter how much they personally mattered to you.
■Show in your resume how you have kept your skills up to date.
■Bring to your interview a success portfolio that provides relevant samples of your work, such as “before” and “after” examples of a document, website or other work product that you improved.
But be selective. A hiring manager warned, “I’m busy — always. One applicant eliminated herself by including in her portfolio just about everything but her wedding video!”
■In your interview, listen, show energy, confidence and humility, and ask questions — but don’t talk too much.
■Your interviewers will probably be checking that you’re adaptable and not stuck in your ways, curious, willing to go the extra mile, and able to take instruction from younger supervisors. If you have not had opportunities that prove that you fit the bill, when your interviewer asks you whether you have any questions, consider starting with an assurance that you do. Support your claims with specific examples.
■If you’re asked about your “five-year plan,” describe your desire to grow in various directions, not towards retirement.■ Don’t mention grandchildren, physical ailments or other things that are “automatic agers.”
■Ask your references to describe you as a high-energy, forward-thinking professional who offers a wealth of valuable experience.
Finally, if you know unemployed Americans who are 55 years or older, tell them about EPA’s Senior Environmental Employment Program, which hires many types of professionals and support staffers.
Lily Whiteman is a federal communications expert and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job,” and a trainer of career advancement skills and communication skills. Her website is IGotTheJob.net. Email your career questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and view her blog at blogs.federaltimes.com/federal-careers.