The recession has hit older workers harder than anyone else. According to a study by the AARP, 9 percent of Americans ages 45 and older have lost their jobs in the past year (versus 5.12 percent in 2008) and a whopping 31 percent expect to lose theirs in the next 12 months.
On top of experiencing a higher unemployment rate, older workers spend longer in between jobs -- 22 weeks on average versus 15 weeks for employees ages 20 to 24, according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Joblessness alone wouldn't be as big a problem, says Kevin Seibert, managing director of the International Foundation for Retirement Education, if the population had a little longer to wait for their 401Ks to bounce back.
"That's really what's killing older workers," he says. "They need the money they've spent a lifetime saving and right now, it's just not there."
Even in the face of such abysmal statistics, there's still hope, says Jeanette Woodward, author of "Finding a Job After 50: Reinvent Yourself for the 21st Century." While employers may be shutting doors, a bevy of new scholarships and programs designed for later-in-life career changers are opening new ones.
"A lot more money is being put into new job training programs," says Woodward. "There's stimulus money and there's some state money, some local, some nonprofit. People over 50 are the hardest hit, but there are lots of opportunities, some of which aren't being explored."
Offer: Search for Schools
Those opportunities include state and federal funds for job retraining. Currently all dislocated workers are eligible for free job counseling and education workshops through their local One-Stop Career Center. Thanks to the Trade Adjustment Act, workers affected by mass layoffs and those in industries including farming and manufacturing, who may permanently lose their jobs to overseas competition, are also eligible for up to 104 weeks of paid occupational training.
In addition to helping laid-off employees find a new career path, these federally-funded centers also provide information on what type of education they'll need to get started in new job markets and contacts with colleges and vocational institutions in the area.
Older workers may also be able to score discounts on career retraining through tuition waivers for dislocated workers and senior citizens at both two- and four-year institutions.
Offer: Thinking About Going Back to School?
A third avenue is to check out career-transition programs designed specifically for workers who bring a wealth of job experience to the table, says Nancy K. Schlossberg, a former professor of psychology at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., and author of "Revitalizing Retirement: Reshaping Your Identity, Relationships, and Purpose."
"National groups like Encore Careers can help you figure out what kinds of fields are looking for workers," Schlossberg says. "There are a number of programs at the community college level that can help older workers transition."
Designed to help workers with job experience transition into critical needs fields, "encore career" programs provide accelerated education tracks to help career changers move into fields such as nursing and teaching without going back for a full bachelor's degree.
Starting over from the bottom
Those who don't head straight to school may have to take a step backwards before they can move forward. Jeff Spilman, managing partner of S3 Entertainment Group in Ferndale, runs the largest film training and production services company in Michigan, a place where many workers come to start second careers.
"The bulk of our students are over 40 and that's good because they know what it's like to have a job and be responsible," says Spilman. "The negative side is that these people have to do internships to break into the field too. Usually our students do one, two or three internships to figure out where they want to go."
Volunteering can also mean a break into a new profession. When Dorothy Wilhelm went from U.S. Army wife to working mother of six at age 48, she worked for free before she got paid.
"I had no job experience, so I went to a very small radio station in Tacoma [Wash.] and told them, 'You have no women on your staff. I can start Monday' and I did. I got up every day at 5[a.m.] to do my show then went to work as a religious education director at a local church. It was hard, but I had to get my foot in the door."
Wilhelm, 76, now holds a degree from Marylhurst University just outside of Portland, Ore., and produces and hosts the Comcast On Demand show, "Never Too Late." She credits her success to the fact that she wasn't afraid to start out at the bottom and take a non-traditional approach to breaking into the field.
"At this time the obvious front door to the business you're interested in is probably clogged with job seekers," she says. "There is no question that they're hiring younger, but we're smarter and we're better workers. The opportunities are there for our generation, you just have to be crafty about it."