Thirty years ago, Peggy O’Leary hit the age glass ceiling at a New England-based utility when informed she was out of the running for the position of buyer.
“You’re too old,” the now 79-year-old Wilmington businesswoman said she was told after having worked in materials and inventory control and human resources.
But times have changed. Today, the founder and president of Premier Staffing Solutions goes to the office each day to help recruit, screen, interview and match temporary, temp-to-hire and direct placement candidates with hundreds of employers.
O’Leary is one of a growing cohort of individuals over the traditional retirement age of 65 who want to remain professionally engaged. But for those like her, a willingness to carefully evaluate later-life goals as well as personal strengths, weaknesses and finances is a must.
Locally, people aged 65 and older comprise about 18 percent of New Hanover County’s labor force, said Suzanne LaFollette-Black, a gerontologist and associate state director with AARP North Carolina.
Reasons for working after 65 – and even as late as 80 – vary.
“We’re seeing a lot of people going back into work to recreate themselves,” LaFollette-Black said, with many of them becoming entrepreneurs.
“They already have some of the capital” as well as knowledge and expertise, she said.
Other seniors are working simply to get by, especially given the demise of traditional pensions. A 2016 survey conducted by GoBankingRates. com reported that 79 percent of North Carolinians had less than $1,000 in their savings account.
With the state ranked third nationally for in-migration of people 50 and older, according to AARP, and with its 65-and-over crowd projected to increase 67 percent by 2035, the number of in-state seniors who remain employed is certain to grow.
Best Foot Forward
While O’Leary successfully pivoted from age discrimination and went on to open her Wilmington business in 1999 at 61, vestiges of age bias linger for those who are not self-employed.
“It’s sometimes very difficult to prove,” AARP’s LaFollette-Black observed. Many employers will phrase interview questions in certain ways to discern a candidate’s age and then remove them from consideration, she explained.
More than 300 companies have signed AARP’s Employer Pledge, promising to recruit across all age groups, she said.
To lessen the chance of being rejected, O’Leary said, older candidates should play up their strongest skills and avoid long chronological explanations of their work history.
To further improve the odds, she encourages them to demonstrate visible energy and “shine.”
And while many seniors are at a disadvantage when it comes to technology – “most of your technology is going to be a dead end for that age group,” O’Leary said – she points to training programs at Brunswick Community College and Cape Fear Community College, two places where seniors in the job market can improve their digital chops.
Conversely, seniors, and women in particular, are “fantastic” at customer service and office work in their later years, O’Leary believes.
Such retail prowess remains on display at Port City Pottery and Fine Crafts in Wilmington’s The Cotton Exchange, where some members of the arts cooperative are moving through their eighth decade.
Port City Pottery president and co-owner Pat Holleman, a potter and former high school principal, along with teacher-turned-fiber arts creator Louise Giordano and ex-publisher Jean LeGwin – all in their 70s – had no front-line retail experience before joining the gallery. But all three wanted to reinvent themselves in a way that gave them a place to pursue their artistic passions within a flexible schedule.
“I’ve always been some kind of maker my whole life,” explained LeGwin, who works at a wood lathe. “It [joining the co-op] wasn’t about the money.”
“I’ve always liked making money,” said Giordano, explaining her own co-op membership. “I like being compensated for what I do.”
To help keep sales strong and things running smoothly, Holleman sought advice from Sara Raleigh, a marketing director and mentor at SCORE, a group of retiree-volunteers who provide face-to-face and online mentoring and low- and no-cost workshops.
Raleigh helped the co-op develop policies and procedures, tweaked store layout, performed sales training and assisted in planning the gallery’s 10th-anniversary event this past April.
Doing such work, some SCORE volunteers end up returning to the work world themselves.
“You miss the engagement with folks; you miss the mental stimulation,” Raleigh said.
Franchising is yet another avenue that active professional seniors can pursue, but one that requires considerable planning.
After 16 years of service to Continental Airlines including overseeing 10,000 employees and 550 flights a day at its Houston hub, Tom Barber, now 73, believes that franchising represents a solid bet.
Barber is no stranger to small business, having launched a dry-cleaning enterprise in Denver in his early years as well as a 14-store Great Clips franchise in Wilmington following his stint at Continental.
“They give you the cookbook,” Barber said of franchisors. “You’re paying them that royalty off the top, but it’s worth every penny.”
Using the services of a consultant with strong ties to the franchising industry is the best way to find the right partner, Barber thinks. Such specialists can help a client identify later-life goals and suitable industries to enter, explain respective rights and responsibilities and are often paid by the franchisor, not the buyer.
But for those who have spent their career in the corporate world, franchising may also stretch a buyer’s skills and capital.
In larger companies, some employees are “immune to all of the pressures of what it takes to run a small business” including procurement, operations, marketing and payroll, Barber said.
Potential franchise owners, he warned, should double their estimate of the projected cash they need. His last three years at Continental were spent socking away money so his new business could take flight.
Once his franchise was off the ground, Barber said, he ended up spending 30 percent less time on the clock than he had at Continental.
In 2014, after 13 years as a franchisee, he sold his stores at a significant profit.
“If you don’t need to do it financially, then you’ve got to be doing it for some self-satisfying reason” whether it be tackling a new challenge, carving out a place in the community or some other personal objective, Barber cautioned. “I think doing it just to make money is a scary thing.”
So, how long will Cape Fear’s septuagenarians continue to show up for work?
Although he has no specific plans at the moment, Barber hinted that his rocking chair won’t get too warm. “I get bored pretty easily,” he said.
At Premier Staffing Solutions, O’Leary, pushing 80, has yet to pencil in a retirement date.
“I don’t have to take vitamins or anything to wind me up,” O’Leary said. “I love what I do. … I actually serve the community by putting people to work.”
As for Holleman at Port City Pottery, “In five years I’ll be 80. I’m going for it!”