Spotlight Exclusives

Fighting Poverty with Training: How Older Americans Can Boost Business

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At the age of 80, Exaltacion Divinagracia works part time at a nursery school and makes less than $13,000 a year, including benefits. She goes from food pantry to food pantry after church on Sundays in search of whatever she can get to keep from going hungry. After her husband died, she was forced to take in six roommates all over the age of 75 just to keep up with the rent.

These are lean times for elderly Americans. According to a recent GAO report, one-third of all older adults are economically insecure. People aged 50 and older represent 28 percent of all foreclosures and delinquencies, and consumers aged 65 and over also carried $10,235 in average credit card debt between 2007 and 2009. While more older adults are working than ever before, they are also the most likely of any age group to be unemployed for 99 weeks or longer. Simply put, economic security for many older Americans is increasingly out of reach.

Many of us have heard these stories or read these alarming statistics about older Americans struggling to get by. Yet we continue to ignore the needs of this population, which is growing at record rates, due in part to the retirement of baby boomers. If we want to address senior economic insecurity, we need a more robust and targeted approach to connecting older Americans to the workforce.

There is only one federally funded training program specifically targeting very low-income older adults. To make matters worse, this program the Senior Community Services Employment Program recently suffered a 45 percent cut, leaving many without help. Absent a dedicated workforce training program, older adults are forced to turn to existing general workforce systems and training programs. These programs, which are often under-resourced and overburdened, are not designed to meet the particular needs of older workers.

Employing and retaining older workers is not just important for helping older adults prosperit۪s also increasingly a business imperative, and a path to profits. Even during times of relatively high unemployment, industries still need skilled workers to thrive. Businesses often experience a mismatch between the qualifications of available workers and the changing demands of critical jobs. They expect not only occupation-specific skills but also dependability, communications skills, collegiality, good judgment, and a strong work ethic. Older adults, with extensive work and life histories, often bring these assets to the job and can be trained for industry and job-specific skills they lack.

The good news is that there۪s a tested approach that can help older adults develop the skills they need to fill 21st century jobs. Called “sector initiatives,” these regional, industry-focused workforce partnerships are highly effective at increasing the earnings of low-income people.

Evaluated in a random assignment study by Public Private Ventures, sector initiatives work because they inquire deeply into the needs of both specific target populations and specific industries. These initiatives involve employers as partners, designing programs that provide participants with the industry- and job-specific skills required to be highly-qualified employees. By offering occupational and basic skills training, coupled with holistic case management services and supports, a sector approach enables low-income and vulnerable populations to find and keep jobs that lead to economic security. 

Until now, however, the sector workforce development approach has been only rarely applied to older adults. 

To address this issue, in 2011 the Insight Center and the National Council on Aging developed the concept of a “mature worker sector initiative.” The Insight Center then conducted extensive research on the needs of both local employers and older adults in San Diego to pilot a mature worker sector initiative.  The research led to a report and recommendations for a program to help older workers enter occupations in the healthcare sector.

Most importantly, this research demonstrated that, in the eyes of many employers, mature workers still have a tremendous amount to contribute to the labor market. As one homecare agency representative explained, “Besides skill and knowledge, we want common sense and the ability to make good judgments, as well as good personal boundaries. The mature population can bring this. The elder worker is dynamite.”

The lessons from these programs can and must be applied to other locations. This program demonstrates a model that shows how working together older adults, businesses, service providers, training entities, and aging and workforce development leaders can improve outcomes for both mature workers and growing industries. In the words of one mature jobseeker: “We want jobs that we can be proud of that don۪t pay minimum wage, and whatever you can do, the magic that you can weave to get us in there, that is what we are here for.”

We can۪t afford to keep older workers on the sidelines any longer. A key step to addressing economic insecurity among older Americans is to forge better connections between these still vital workers and a labor force in need of their skills. Now is the time to apply proven techniques to this critical challenge.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Susan E. Smith is the managing director at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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