Getting older _and_ better

Other Writings for Mar. 14, 2007

Joe Grimm of the Detroit Free Press, who writes the Ask the Recruiter column for the Poynter Institute, has a letter today from a journalist in Silver Springs who asks, "Is age hurting my job search?"

"I'm looking at a great 25-year career with honors and a dead end as far as job prospects....," she writes. "I've got more experience than most candidates, and I've got a resume to match, yet for the past two years ... I've been unable to land a top-level management job.

"So tell me. Is it age? ...Do I simply resign myself to having reaped the best years and sit quietly in the meadow?"

Grimm points out, "If age is the issue, no one who wants to stay out of court will tell you that. It likely is a lot more complicated than a straight age issue, though....

The rest of his reply mainly addresses what happens if you get an interview but don't get the job. He says, "Employers will seldom get real honest with unsuccessful job candidates unless they see them as well-suited for another job down the road. Explanations can be awkward and time-consuming, and they often lead to defensive arguments from candidates who feel they are being attacked at a time when they are vulnerable.

"The person who gave you the vague answer about 'fit' may be the closest you have come to the truth. 'Fit' usually refers to a personality mismatch and may refer to qualities such as outgoingness, aggressiveness, entrepreneurial skills and a host of other characteristics. Talk to former employers and other colleagues people who know you well and who will be honest with you."

Good advice, but the Silver Springs' woman's main problem is she wasn't even being called in for interview.

I also worried whether my age (58) kept me from getting hired after a newspaper eliminated my job last year. For awhile, I tried to hide my gray hair (speaking figuratively). However, I got my B.A. in 1973. After seeing my education on a job application, any editor who took fourth-grade math can figure that was a long time ago. Today I'm not exactly upfront about my age, but I try to emphasize other things, including experiences that gave me gray hairs.

The baggage that comes with age certainly gets in the way of some older people being hired. Salary level is a big hurdle. I've hired people who took a 15% pay cut from their previous job, usually because they wanted to work in this area, but never more than that. No one with any sense of pride wants to feel worth-less. I earned $52,000 a year, so my "floor" salary for a new job might be $44,000. Even if I'm willing to work for less (and I am; in fact, for much less), I'll probably never be interviewed for a reporting or copy desk job, not when the _median_ salary for an experienced reporter is $37,000 and for a copy editor $38,500.

Another problem with age: Some editors believe older journalists don't have the right experience for modern journalism; i.e., web skills, audio, video. These editors (who themselves may not have a clue how to build a web page) tend to believe young people have these online skills because they spend so much time on the web. Those editors are often wrong.

More often than not, looking through MySpace, Facebook and other services, I've seen truly ugly, dysfunctional web sites put up by young people. This shouldn't come as a surprise. If you're old enough, you remember when LaserWriters appeared and anyone with a copy of Microsoft Publisher thought they could produce their own newspaper/newsletter/magazine/ad. Ugly, ugly. Technology alone doesn't make us better writers, photographers or videographers, designers, producers and editors.

Nowadays, my cover letter to a prospective employer usually emphasizes my personal web _site_ (not just a blog); the news site I edit (on an unpaid basis, but who has to know that?); my accounts on social-network and photo-sharing sites; that I code basic HTML; and I have written broadcast scripts -- including five one-hour segments for "The History of Rock 'n' Roll" on KCCS -- and radio ad continuity. Now I'm going to master basic audio and video editing.

The funny thing, I added in a feedback note to Grimm, is that I learned how to use the web to get another newspaper job. Now I enjoy it much more than newspapers. No deadlines (every minute is a deadline). No word limits. More tools than ever before to report the news. And salaries for online editors rose 8.8 percent on average last year.

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