WILKES-BARRE — With the region posting the state’s highest unemployment rate for 46 straight months, it’s no wonder thousands of people walked into the 109th Field Artillery Armory on Tuesday looking for work.
What stood out was the high number of gray- and white-haired job seekers.
David Nathan, with AARP, said that while a lower percentage of people 55 and older are unemployed when compared to other groups, this age bracket has seen the largest increase in unemployment. He also noted people in this age group who become unemployed typically take longer to re-enter the workforce.
The annual Times Leader Spring Career Fair featured 27 businesses or organizations from throughout the region seeking applicants. A third of them were new to the fair, including broadcasting company Cumulus, Fairchild Semiconductor in Mountain Top and Benton Foundry Inc. from Columbia County.
With a tri-county unemployment rate of 8.1 percent in January, there are 255,200 unemployed and looking for work in Wyoming, Lackawanna and Luzerne counties. Of them, about 15 percent are age 55 or older, according to Gerry Chickeletti, the project director with the Mature Workers Program for Luzerne and Wyoming counties.
Chickeletti, of Duryea, said that while the face of the unemployed has long been someone in their 20s or 30s, the reality is that older people are quickly seeing their jobs disappear as companies are bought, downsized or closed. And even older people who took early retirement, or retired because they hit 65, are finding that Social Security and/or pensions aren’t enough to pay the bills.
So the program that Chickeletti oversees tries to provide workers with new skills and advocates for them with employers and other organizations looking for workers. He said more and more companies are turning toward older, more mature employees because they’re “dependable, show up on time and take their work seriously.”
And for those companies that haven’t taken older workers seriously, “I tell them they’re missing out on diamonds in the rough. They are gems.”
As Chickeletti walked through the armory, he spoke with company representatives, pushing his program and getting interest from a few of the representatives.
Maria McCurry, 59, of Wilkes-Barre, was laid off in 2011 from her job at the Visiting Nurses Association and has been looking for steady work every since. She estimates she has applied for more than 500 jobs and has only landed three interviews — none of which led to an offer.
“It’s very difficult,” McCurry said.
Steve Gombetta, 63, of Hunlock Creek, retired from his job of 25 years in July and thought he’d be able to survive on his savings. But the combination of rising taxes and boredom led him to start looking for work.
He came to the career fair looking for “whatever I can find that will challenge me but not drive me crazy.” He left without finding what he wanted.