Debbie Ahrlich, 54, who lives near Queen Creek, is more confident about applying for work after completing a two-week class that stressed skills needed to get and keep a job. Photo by Andy DeLisle

Debbie Ahrlich, 54, who lives near Queen Creek, is more confident about applying for work after completing a two-week Back to Work 50+ class that stressed skills needed to get and keep a job. Photo by Andy DeLisle

By Betty Beard • For Debbie Ahrlich, reentering the workforce at 54 means not only updating her résumé but facing fears of a formal interview and creating something she had never heard of, a “30-second elevator speech.” But she said she feels more optimistic after attending the Back to Work 50+ class at a Goodwill of Central Arizona career center in Phoenix.

The two-week class updated her computer knowledge and hammered home the importance of skills that people need to get and keep a job.

For some people, that’s careful résumé writing, recasting a long stretch of joblessness by stressing skills that were honed during unpaid volunteer work the person did while unemployed, for example. For others, it might be the crucial basics of coming to work on time and dressing appropriately.

“I learned a lot about listening, interviewing skills, your presence, your nonverbal gestures,” said Ahrlich, who lives near Queen Creek and was one of the first people to attend Back to Work 50+ classes.

She also learned that an elevator speech is what she’d say to impress a potential employer if they shared an elevator ride.

Out of work longer

Her age and a 16-month stretch of unemployment made Ahrlich the type of job hunter Back to Work 50+ was created to help. People 50 and older were especially hard hit in the 2008-09 recession. It takes unemployed older workers an average of 49 weeks to find another job, 13 weeks longer than people under 55.

Back to Work 50+ began in March as a project of AARP Foundation, the charity affiliate of AARP, and Goodwill of Central Arizona. The goal is to introduce people 50 and older to jobs or careers in health care by directing them to entry-level jobs for which there are frequent openings in the Phoenix area. Among them are janitorial, food service and courier jobs; positions in customer relations; and roles as certified nursing assistants.

Entry-level jobs aren’t necessarily dead-end jobs, said Michael Burchett, Goodwill’s director of training services. Those positions can introduce workers to employers who could pay for more training that leads to better jobs, he said.

Back to Work 50+ participants are not guaranteed jobs, only that they will end up more job-ready, Burchett said.

The four-day session covers résumé writing, how to shine in an interview and how to respond to grumpy customers or coworkers. People who need computer training get an additional week of instruction. Participants are not paid, and the classes are free.

People skills and basic employee responsibilities are emphasized. Burchett said employers complained that too many applicants lack basic skills, such as an ability to explain why they are a good fit for a job opening, proper time management and attention to task deadlines.

What employers really want to know in an interview, he said, is: “Is this the person I want talking to my customers? Is this the person I want interacting with my team?”

One-on-one attention

Back to Work 50+ pairs participants who complete the class with a career adviser for additional help.

Amy Nofziger, the Denver-based regional director of AARP income impact programs, said Back to Work 50+ is aimed at unemployed people 50 to 64 because so few programs give them one-on-one attention.

“We are looking for people who are wanting to work and who need to work for another 10 to 15 years to support their families. Someone who is 50 is a lot different than someone who is 67 and needs to supplement their income,” she said.

For more about Back to Work 50+, call AARP Foundation toll-free at 855-850-2525. To learn about two-hour information sessions at a Goodwill of Central Arizona career center, call 602-535-4444.

Betty Beard is a writer living in Chandler, Ariz.

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