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Federal program helps ease retirees back into work force

Posted: Tuesday, March 09, 2004

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Financial pressure split Melton Potts from his retirement plans when he started drawing Social Security at age 62.

The former mechanical designer looked forward to working part-time and enjoying himself, but the small amount of freelance work he found soon dwindled to nothing.

''You can't live on Social Security alone,'' Potts said. ''That's why I got back into the work force.''

Potts, who lives in Chapmansboro, got help from the Senior Community Service Employment Program, a federally funded project to train the growing number of older people who want jobs.

There are programs in every state, including six in Tennessee.

Participants are first assigned to jobs with public or nonprofit agencies, and the program pays their salaries. But many move on to privately owned companies after improving their skills.

''The older generation has a good work ethic,'' said John Governor, program director at Mid-Cumberland Community Service Agency in Nashville. ''They care about being productive and want to work. They tend to have less absenteeism than younger workers and lower turnover.''

The budget for the jobs program in Tennessee is $8.8 million, funding 1,231 positions. The national average placement rate is 20 percent and about 34 percent in Tennessee, Governor said.

The program changed everything for Potts.

He started out collecting entrance fees for one season at the Cheatham County Dam, and now works as a substitute teacher. He's also studying for a degree in engineering technology at Austin Peay State University.

''I don't have a definite plan,'' he said. ''I knew I wanted to get a college degree because I couldn't when I was young my parents died and I had to go to work.''

Older workers like Potts are expected to make up a larger part of the labor force as much as 20 percent in the next 20 years as baby boomers age, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers 55 and older made up only 13 percent of the labor force in 2000.

Older workers also have been pushed back into the work force because, starting in 2000, Social Security benefits are lowered for each month a recipient is younger than 65.

Nationwide, the federal program uses about $443 million to pay for 62,045 positions. Turnover typically allows about 100,000 people participate in the program each year.

In California's Silicon Valley, 70-year-old Millicent Winsberg, of Mountain View, works as an employment counselor for Proven People, part of the North Valley Job Training Consortium funded by the city of Sunnyvale.

''I worked as an administrative assistant for a large pharmaceutical company,'' Winsberg said. ''I'm now living on a fixed income and need a little cash. It helps being 70 when people in their 60s come and say, 'I can't get a job' because I tell them, 'I'm 70 and not anywhere near finished.'''

A similar program in nearby Santa Clara, Calif., uses nonprofits and public agencies to upgrade older workers' skills, program director Susan LaForge said.

''We've got people doing janitorial and cafeteria work up to programmers and Web designers,'' she said. ''We also do a lot of office jobs such as receptionists and data entry. We have jobs in health care, elder care, gardeners, kitchen help and electricians and carpenters.''

Carolyn Stearnes, vice president of senior services of the Family Support Division in Memphis, said the program funds 173 part-time positions in Shelby and Fayette counties. New employees are paid $5.15 an hour.

''Many come to us for training because they don't want to work in a fast food restaurant or need some help to make them employable,'' she said. ''It's a myth that older workers don't want to learn or are unable to master new skills.''

Sixty-four-year-old Rose Andreozzi, of Newbern, ran a floral shop for 25 years in Rhode Island before retiring in 1999 and moving to be closer to her grandson.

''When I ran my shop, I sometimes thought, 'I can't wait to retire,''' she said. ''I worked hard, and if you don't develop a lot of interests over the years, you find yourself watching the idiot box when you retire.''

Andreozzi contacted the Mid-Cumberland Community Services Agency and landed a part-time job as a receptionist. She now works 30 hours a week interviewing those seeking unemployment benefits.

''Working beats watching soap operas,'' she said.

On the Net:

Senior Community Service Employment Program: http://www.dhfs.state.wi.us/aging/Genage/SENCSEP.HTM



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