Vocational Rehabilitation of Older Displaced Workers

Article excerpt

Displaced workers are generally defined as individuals who Dare involuntarily unemployed as a result of layoffs, reductions-in-force (rif's), mergers, plant closings or plant relocations (Beckett, 1988; Fritz, 1990). In this article, older workers will be defined as all persons over age 40 who are covered by the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967. Workers become displaced due to a variety of factors related to technological, economic and health changes. Automation eliminates jobs or alters their skill requirements so that some workers become obsolete in the labor market. Technological change can also herald the decline of some industries and the advent of new ones for which the worker may not be skilled. Plant closings or relocations are often motivated by economic changes. For a number of years, economic factors have caused the decline of manufacturing jobs in this country in favor of Third World countries where labor is cheaper; taxes are lower; there are fewer governmental regulations; and suppliers of raw materials are in closer proximity (Beckett, 1988).

At the same time that economic and technological changes are eliminating jobs, they are also creating new jobs that go unfilled because current workers are often mismatched due to a lack of appropriate training. Another factor is that new jobs are often lower paid and lower status creating a gap in worker expectations and self-image.

Most displaced workers encounter some difficulties in becoming re-employed but the problems are more difficult to surmount past the age of 40. Thirty-eight percent of three million of the workers who lost their jobs from 1980 to 1985 were over the age of 45 (National Council on Aging, 1986).

The prevalence of disability is also becoming an increasingly important factor in older worker unemployment. Two thirds of SSDI recipients are over age 50 (Morrison & Magel, 1984) and 80% of individuals over age 60 suffer from physical conditions that limit their ability to work (Myers, 1980). The average 55-year-old functions at 40% of vital capacity when compared with the average 20-year-old (Kemp & Kleinplatz, 1985). In addition, the average disabled worker is 50 years old at onset of disability (Hester & Faimon, 1985). This article will examine and make recommendations to overcome the causes of older worker displacement and unemployment. It will also discuss social trends which will eventually lessen the problem and steps that the vocational rehabilitation community can take to alleviate the plight of this population.

Problems Encountered by Older, Displaced Workers:

Ageism is the major barrier that older, displaced workers face in finding new employment. Because the myths of ageism have been documented in many articles and should be well known to rehabilitation professionals, they will be treated briefly here. Some of the myths refuted by research include:(1) Older workers are slower than young workers;(2) Older workers do not have the physical capacities to perform the job;(3) Older workers have high absenteeism rates;(4) Older workers do not adjust well to change;(5) Pension and insurance costs are substantially higher; and (6) Intellectual functioning and performance on the job decline with age (Myers, 1980). Other myths describe the older worker as opinionated and hard to get along with, less serious and less ambitious than younger workers (Sheppard, 1986).

Both employers and the rehabilitation system (Rasch, 1979) may deny opportunities for retraining to the older worker. This may result in skill obsolescence in the face of rapid technological change (Sheppard, 1986). The rationale is that the older worker may retire too soon to warrant the training expenditure. Yet, retraining a 50-year-old may be more cost-effective than training a young person because older employees have lower turnover rates. Given the fast pace of technological change, most workers have to be retrained every few years to acquire new skills for new technology. …