A senior helping seniors: Shelly Labinger gives older workers a boost at Goodwill’s job placement program

Whether it’s out of a sense of enjoyment or necessity, more and more older Americans continue to work long past what others consider retirement age.

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2028, about 23 percent of those age 65 or older will be in the workforce.

At age 70, Shelly Labinger continues to work — by choice. She obtained her first job at age 16 and hasn’t stopped, working at many different jobs — from telephone operator to private chef.

When she reached her 50s and beyond, however, she found it more difficult to get hired.

“I like to work, but it got to the point where it was harder for people 55 and older to find jobs,” she said. “I look good on a resume, but when someone sees me they think it’s a big liability, so I had to sell myself.”

Those are the realities of the senior set who still want to work. To compound the problem, surveys show that when older unemployed workers lose jobs, it generally takes them twice as long as their younger counterparts to become reemployed. And those who find work typically earn only half as much they did at their previous job.

Wanting to work and fight the stigma of hiring older workers, Labinger landed at Goodwill Central Coast, where she runs a senior job placement program operated by the nonprofit National Association for Hispanic Elderly, based in Pasadena. ANPPM (it’s a Spanish-language acronym for Asociación Nacional Pro Personas Mayores) works with 500 partner organizations across the country to deliver services, focused on economic sustainability for older people.

“People want to work,” she said. “It gives a lot of confidence to an individual, that they are not just sitting around watching soap operas.”

Through the program at GCC’s Career Center office in Salinas, Labinger helps seniors find work, develop new skills and talents, build their financial security, and combat feelings of loneliness and unworthiness.

Initially hired at a Goodwill store organizing clothing, Labinger saw herself as a fit in the Career Center. She depends on referrals from government programs but mostly works by word of mouth. She spends much time speaking to senior centers and veterans groups to spread the word about ANPPM’s services through Goodwill.

 “There are a lot of jobs out there,” she said. “A lot of people in the senior age bracket need to work because Social Security does not cover all their expenses, especially in Monterey County.”

Roughly 35 percent of the workforce in the U.S. is made up of people age 55 and older. More than 60 percent of those folks continue to work for financial reasons while 38 percent work for personal reasons.

“Many seniors still feel they have something to offer,” Labinger said. “And we’re here to help bring out their confidence and show them the way.”

The program requires participants to live at or near poverty level, and out of the job market for at least a year. Labinger has helped seniors from many backgrounds, including those with disabilities.

“The Department of Rehabilitation sent an 86-year-old person who is legally blind and wanted to work,” she said. “We do all we can, and try our best to show them they are still viable. A strong desire to work, to me, outweighs any disability.”

Labinger can share many success stories. Recently she sat down with an older homeless man who roamed the streets of Chinatown in Salinas.

 “He was homeless and disheveled, and I told him he would have to clean himself up and give himself a chance,” she said. “It wasn’t cruel to say that, just reality. Well, he came back to me with new second-hand clothes, his beard trimmed, and now he does fantastic work on the loading dock at Goodwill.”

Labinger helped another homeless man, from Colombia, secure a job at Natividad as a translator. Both men have now secured low-income housing and are off the streets.

“I love my job,” Labinger said. “I think it’s necessary. I know how they are feeling and the frustrations they go through. And I see the side of businesses, too. I’ve been a manager before, and you can’t afford to hire problems, of any age. But if you give some with desire a chance to succeed, they will almost always surprise you.”

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