A federal program to keep older adults in the workforce is struggling to find more businesses in the Owensboro region willing to hire these elders after they upgrade their skills.
In the first of a two-part series, WKU Public Radio looks at efforts to expand the the regional Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), and how one 74-year-old who particpated in the program is thriving in her new job.
Dee Padgett has been in her job as office manager at United Way of the Coalfield in Madisonville since September.
“Good morning. United Way of the Coalfield. This is Dee. How may I help you?” That's the usual greeting to callers from Padgett, who serves as as the welcoming voice of the busy office.
“Yes, I can do that. What time would you like me to make that appointment for you?" she asked. “I’ll look at my calendar and see what I can do. I’ll give you a call back. Thank you.”
Padgett was hired for this job after 19 months of training through SCSEP, the federal program that retrains low-income individuals age 55 and over and helps them get jobs.
The regional SCSEP office based in Owensboro covers Daviess, Henderson, Hopkins and McLean counties. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. For this regional program, funding is granted to Goodwill International of Rockville, Maryland, and then to the Owensboro, Kentucky program through Goodwill Industries of Evansville, Indiana.
Padgett was paid the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour during training at three nonprofits, known as “host agencies.” Her training sites were an economic development office, Kentucky Job Network and Mahr Park in Madisonville.
She said the different training experiences gave her a chance to upgrade her self-taught computer skills, especially in graphics, computer design, and the accounting software QuickBooks. During training, she applied for jobs.
“Although I filled out applications and submitted resumes for jobs I knew I could do, I was not chosen,” said Padgett.
She has a master’s degree in adult education with an emphasis in gerontology from Western Kentucky University. She’s worked as director of a senior center, as senior services coordinator for a local hospital, and for the public health department. There was a gap of several years in her professional life while she was caregiver for her husband, who has since passed away.
Padgett said re-entering the workforce was not easy, but she had bills to pay, and applied for work not related to her experience.
“Jobs such as even cleaning, that were certainly in another skill set, or way below what I had formerly done," she said.
She didn’t put her age on her resume, but did add another element.
“On my resume, I put my picture and that probably was a mistake, because I think gray hair means you’ll drop dead,” said Padgett.
Her resume and sterling recommendations caught the attention of Executive Director of United Way of the Coalfield Don Howerton. He said once he met Padgett, he knew she was right for the job.
“She’s amazing. She exceeds every expectation I had. I was just hoping we would trudge along together and build the program. I just started in March. I was new as well," said Howerton. "The Donation Tracker program, she’s been on the phone with them countless times, going through courses and tutoring and she gets it. She gets it quickly, and it’s extremely important for her to get it quickly, as we’re in our campaign season.”
Howerton said the qualities of older workers should be appreciated by business executives.
“I think they should not be afraid to hire an older individual. What they have to offer, the knowledge they have to offer, their willingness to work to exceed expectations, which is what Dee does every day, is amazing and will help everyone,” said Howerton.
Regional Program Manager for SCSEP, Jana Sullivan, has been in the job for two years, and said she often hears praise when she checks back with employers.
“Because they can depend on my participants," she said. "They are used to a certain type of work ethic. They're reliable.”
Sullivan said 26 people are currently enrolled in the Owensboro area program. That’s in addition to 52 who previously participated over the past two years, with about one-third of those finding employment. Sullivan said it’s been a mix of success and struggle.
“It’s been great, however just a little difficult to get host agencies involved, and employers involved to assist us in finding employment and training opportunities for the participants in the area,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan said she’s working to convince more business executives to hire these workers who have upgraded their skills and are determined to stay in the workforce.
This story was produced with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.