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Even the youngest state in the nation grows old eventually. Are we ready for it?

The demand is there, so older Utahns are finding ways to stay in the workforce

Tad Greener got a temporary position at Utah’s Office of Energy Development through the “Return Utah” program and now he is a permanent employee.
Courtesy Utah Office of Energy Development
Tad Greener got a temporary position at Utah’s Office of Energy Development through the “Return Utah” program and now he is a permanent employee.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Tad Greener was unemployed, in his 60s and struggling with chronic health issues. He didn’t have any luck finding a job for the rest of the year and suspects his age was a factor, as well as having to explain why he had been unemployed.

“No one’s going to say, ‘Well, we’re looking for somebody younger.’ But it was difficult,” Greener said.

In 2021, he said he got a handle on his health and heard about “Return Utah,” a new state program designed to help people who had taken a break from the workforce find jobs. Greener applied for the program and got a job in Utah’s Office of Energy Development, which fit his background.

“That was a godsend to me,” Greener said. “One thing led to another, and I’ve been working now with the state, productively, for two years.”

If his health permits, Greener is thinking about staying in the workforce until he’s 67.

As Utah’s population of older adults grows, so is the number of older Utahns in the workforce. The labor force participation rate for Utahns ages 55 to 64 years old grew 5.2% between the end of 2019 and the spring of 2022, according to Utah’s Department of Workforce Services. Gwen Kervin, regional economist with the department, said that rate includes both full-time and part-time work, and that most drop out of the workforce entirely when they turn 65.

When Alan Ormsby, state director of AARP Utah, hears from older Utahns looking to go back to work, it’s usually for financial reasons.

“Especially with the amount of inflation we’ve seen in the last little while, it’s really expensive. And certainly, Social Security is not keeping up with people’s expenses,” he said.

Ormsby is excited to see more Utahns over 60 staying in the workforce longer, whether that’s keeping their current job or finding a new career. He said older workers bring a host of skills with them.

“Maybe you got in a job that was paying the bills,” Ormsby said. “Now you’ve got an opportunity, maybe, to do something that you’ve always dreamed about. And so we are seeing a lot of people take on those exciting opportunities doing meaningful work.”

For Tad Greener, there was a little bit of a technology learning curve when he started working again, since “the world went virtual” while he was out of the workforce. But he thinks there are also things he brings to the table because of his age, like a sense of stability.

“There’s a lot of talent out there in the 50s and 60s,” Greener said. “It might take a little more of an investment in hiring people that are older, initially. I guess it just depends on the individual.”

Ormsby said a lot of the people he talks with are looking to try something completely different — they’ve spent most of their career in one sector and now they’re looking for their “third act.” He also suspects that there are older Utahns who are interested in working but aren’t.

“I think age discrimination is probably the biggest reason.”

Ormsby said he’s seen some older adults try out the gig economy. Another option is reskilling or job reentry programs, like the program Greener participated in.

Shay Baker, the program manager for Return Utah, said about 60% of program participants are initially hired by state agencies in temporary positions.

“If you’re only hiring someone for four months, who cares how old they are,” Baker said. “What’s happening is we’re hiring for mostly temporary roles, but during that period of time, the agency is like ‘Oh my gosh, this person is stellar. We love this person, let’s keep them.’”

She added that more than 90% of participants end up transitioning to a full-time role, like Greener.

For low-income unemployed older adults, there’s also the federal Senior Community Service Employment Program. Darren Hotton, who oversees the program for Utah’s Division of Aging and Adult Services, said they currently have fewer program participants than they did pre-COVID.

Hotton doesn’t think this means the number of Utahns who qualify has gone down, but that with so much demand for labor and younger people not filling all of the spots, older Utahns are having an easier time finding above-minimum wage jobs on their own. Hotton said program participants are only paid minimum wage while they’re being trained.

For those who don’t qualify for the Senior Community Service Employment Program but still don’t have enough money to retire, Ormsby recommends people reach out to their local aging agency for help getting connected to resources.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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