Colorado working to break down age barriers in the workforce

Ageism is the next frontier of the DEI conversation

There is much discussion about worker shortages around the country. In Colorado, for example, as the state looks toward economic recovery, it expects to face the same challenges that existed before COVID-19 and the subsequent shutdowns. Not enough people to fill existing jobs.

“It’s real hard for workers and employers to remember February of 2020 when any skilled occupation in Colorado was really struggling to find talent,” says Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. “You can’t expect that to go away,” he adds.

Colorado officials see older workers as part of the solution.

The Importance of Learning and Earning

A survey conducted earlier this year finds that half of Colorado residents who are 50 years and older are looking for employment, and half of those job seekers would like to work at something new.

Joe Barela, executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (Photo: CDLE)

Lifelong learning for workers is needed to make sure businesses have an accessible pipeline of workers, emphasizes Barela.

“It’s not just upskilling that involves skills training,” Barela explains.

“We are really moving towards learning and earning at the same time because we know incumbent workers that are aged 40, 50, 60 may not have the luxury to stop earning a living or a paycheck to support themselves and their families. So, they need to do it while they are working.”

Apprenticeship as a Pathway

Apprenticeships are often associated with skilled trades, but have expanded into other fields, particularly those sectors that need workers.

For more than five years, Home Care of the Rockies—which provides home health care to older patients—has been offering on-the-job paid training and work experience as a federally registered apprenticeship program.

Age is not a barrier to taking part in the program. 74-year-old Janet Messerli just completed her professional caregiver apprenticeship and certification through the program.

“I was very pleased that Home Care of the Rockies was not afraid to give me a chance because of my age,” says Messerli. “I wanted it to be lasting and meaningful, and I wanted it to be a good fit.”

Janet Messerli (L.) receives her professional caregiver certification (Photo: Home Care of the Rockies)

No prior experience is needed for the apprenticeship which requires working 32 hours of work a week with 100 hours of paid training sessions. Hundreds of people have gone through the program and the company has been awarded state grants to expand its training.

Home health aides in Colorado earn a mean hourly wage of $13.83 and an annual mean wage of $30,350, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A Valued Employee
Sandi McCann, founder and CEO of Home Care of the Rockies (Photo: Home Care of the Rockies)

Older workers are desirable, says Sandi McCann, founder and CEO of Home Care of the Rockies. “They show up. They are on time. They’re professional.”

She adds that they also meet a key client request. “They want a caregiver to anticipate their needs.”

McCann herself knows what it’s like to make a career change after decades in the workforce. She started the company at the age of 50 following a marketing career.

“This is the most rewarding career I’ve ever had,” says McCann.

Changing Stereotypes

Services that help older people navigate the workforce landscape are proving beneficial. Phillip Waltz, a self-described boomer, sought assistance from Arapahoe/Douglas Works! after losing his job during the pandemic.

Besides getting resume advice and learning effective interviewing skills, Waltz also attended a seminar on dealing with different generations in the workforce.

“There’s a perception we can’t learn any more. That we are very fixed in what we do. That we are not very flexible,” says Waltz. He learned tips on how to offset baby boomer stereotypes.

It was important that Waltz figure out how to transfer his job-related skills to a different career. He had been a coordinator at South Suburban Parks and Recreation for 22 years.

Phil Waltz, career advisor at Arapahoe/Douglas Works! (Photo: P. Waltz)

“A lot of people talk about pivoting. ‘What are your skills? Analyze your skills. What do you like to do? What are your transferable skills?’” notes Waltz.

Waltz’s past experience training volunteers and helping them find their niche put him on a new path as a career advisor at Arapahoe/Douglas Works!—the same workforce center he initially turned to for help with his own job search.

Waltz advises other job seekers to take advantage of the free services and online classes that are provided.

Changing a Mindset

Not all employers are embracing older workers.

It’s projected that by 2030, workers who are 55 and older will account for 24% of the state’s labor force. Transamerica Institute and the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health teamed up to research employer practices and Colorado’s aging workforce.

“The goal of this survey was to do a baseline assessment. How ready are Colorado employers for this opportunity associated with the aging workforce and the age 50-plus employees?” explains Transamerica Institute president and CEO Catherine Collinson.

Catherine Collinson, president and CEO of Transamerica Institute (Photo: C. Collinson)

“As you are probably not surprised, many employers are not aware of the opportunity and relatively few had implemented any best practices.”

To that end, the Transamerica Institute and the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health are introducing an educational platform for employers about age-friendly employment practices.

Collinson explains the initial goal is to have 30 employers in Colorado identify a best practice to implement in their own organizations.

“We do see [ageism] as the next frontier of the DEI conversation. We’re not there yet,” says Collinson.