In the know
Experience can be an older job-seeker’s best friend
“People looking for jobs are … more likely to run into a manager in need of a specific skill or a specific strength, and that’s where that experience comes in.”
T im O’Brien likes to tell friends that he’s on the “better side of 50.” What does he mean by that? Well, that’s a good question.
“I have to be honest, I used to just think it meant how you looked, like when people say their right profile is better than their left profile,” O’Brien says. “I thought it was just some goofy expression.” Today, the 58-year-old accountant from Arlington, Texas, feels a bit differently.
“It means I’m on the right side of the age spectrum,” he says. “I’m the guy who’s on the right side of the game.”
That game, O’Brien says, is today’s job market. Once convinced he had to cloak his age at all costs, O’Brien says he now leads with it any time he heads into a job interview.
“I want them to know up front that I’m the guy with experience,” he says.
After working more than 30 years for a “top-shelf” accounting firm, as he puts it, O’Brien abruptly found himself out of a job in 2010.
“It was a purge, essentially,” he says. “They got rid of people who had put in enough time to earn the top end of the scale. Nothing scientific about it. They just cut the people who made the most money.” O’Brien says he found himself scrambling for work.
“I had two kids in college and a house that was in need of about $50,000 in repairs,” he says. “I was desperate.”
So desperate, in fact, that O’Brien said he would lie about his age on applications and during interviews.
“Everyone I spoke with told me no one hires people older than 50,” he says. “I figured I’d say what I had to say.”
That is, until he got caught. O’Brien is quick to point out that he never lied on forms or when asked to clarify his age, but his resume bumped up his college graduation date by 15 years.
“My wife was the one who busted me,” he says. “She said ‘If you think someone’s going to believe that mug of yours isn’t even 40 yet, you’re delusional.’”
O’Brien says he revised his resume, worked with an outplacement firm and rebranded himself as an experienced money man, “the guy who knew where the bodies were buried,” he says. The strategy immediately paid off. O’Brien says he was hired by an insurance firm in Dallas for a six-month assignment to clean up their financial books. It took him 10 weeks, thanks to relying more on face-to-face discussions with those responsible for the financial decisions and a multi-level approach to finding the right answer. He was the right hire.
Don’t run from your experience
Career consultant Edward Bracks, who specializes in placing executives in financial firms in New York and New Jersey, says O’Brien’s decision to play up his experience should be a strong example to anyone over the age of 50 who’s looking for a job.
“People looking for jobs are always going to run into interviewers and managers who won’t be able to get past their age,” Bracks says. “Let’s just admit that up-front. But they’re more likely to run into a manager in need of a specific skill or a specific strength, and that’s where that experience comes in.”
Delta Wilson, a former trainer for United Airlines in Chicago, says when used correctly, experience trumps all other attributes and can be used to secure most jobs.
“Anyone can be enthusiastic. Anyone can be aggressive. Anyone can say they work well with others,” Wilson says. “How many people can say they’ve been there and done that? You add that experience to any other trait, whether it’s confidence, creativity — whatever — and you’re looking at the ideal candidate.
Look the part
Wilson says older applicants often work too hard to fit in with their younger competitive counterparts. She recalls “seeing guys come in with ridiculous shirts and women come in wearing borderline inappropriate clothing, just so they could look young. It didn’t work. They looked ridiculous.”
At the same time, some older applicants looked, according to Wilson, like they “just stepped off a bus on their way to a free dinner.” In other words, “iron your pants, wear a simple tie, look professional,” she says. “You know those cliches about how older people dress? Rumbled clothes, lots of layers, gigantic shoes, thick scarves? Avoid those cliches.
On the hunt
Although he likes taking project-based assignments, O’Brien says he’s now looking for a full-time job.
“I like going in and fixing up a company’s books, but I also like stability and routines. Maybe that’s the older guy in me coming out,” he says. “Now, I’m looking for a full-time job because I know I can help out more if I have a chance to really dig in.”
O’Brien says he’s already received two offers but turned down both.
“One was a brutal commute and the other just didn’t seem like the right fit, at least for my last full-time job ever, I hope,” he says. “But if it’s not, I’ll survive. I’ll just be the 65-year-old guy who comes in and fixes everything you’ve been doing wrong the past 10 years.”