50 and Out of Work

By Lloyd Graff

Courtesy of “The Chicago Tribune.” Diana O’Connor poses Tuesday in downtown Chicago. Even with a Teacher of Distinction award from Golden Apple, she has been unable to find a teaching job.

Diana O’Connor, a high school music teacher in Suburban Chicago, had the best of days and the worst last February. She recounted it in an excellent column by Mary Schmich in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune.

O’Connor received a letter in the mail a year ago saying she was a finalist for the prestigious Golden Apple Award, which is given to a few of the best teachers in Illinois every year. Tucked into the same batch of mail was a letter from her school stating that she had been fired from her job at Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa.

The column denoted O’Connor’s difficulty in finding another position as a high school music teacher, a job she loved, despite her noteworthy accolade as a Golden Apple finalist. In the article, Schmich quoted many of O’Connor’s peers who gave her glowing praise.

My wife Risa read the article before I did and gave me the gist of it. My reaction was that of a hardened cynical boss who had seen many washouts with good reps. “I wonder what’s wrong with the woman?” I said. “There are always people looking for somebody good.”

Diana O’Connor has now been out of work for a year, and her unemployment benefits are running out in a few days. She is recently divorced with two teenagers at home. She gets child support from her ex-husband but is now filing for Medicaid. But my response was a hard-hearted “what’s wrong with her?”

In the machining world where I live, know-how, experience and peer recognition are highly valued. If she was a setup person with 25 years in the field, or a journeyman mechanic, or a sophisticated quality consultant she would be snapped up in no time — unless she had a history of job hopping or union organizing.

The Tribune columnist implied that O’Connor has had difficulty finding work because she is 50 years old — and is perhaps expecting a high salary because of extensive work experience. In my world, experience is gold and highly sought. I’d be shocked if it is not prized in the teaching field, but am I wrong?

I recently hired a highly experienced and fully vetted person as Graff Pinkert’s office manager. I was looking for an “adult,” a seasoned veteran who was sophisticated in business. I felt fortunate to find such a person. So when I read the Tribune piece about the award winning teacher who cannot find a job, my antennae perked up. I was perplexed and a tad cynical.

I am interested if you find her story emblematic of today’s job world and troubling. Or is your reaction similar to my own? What’s the rest of the story? What’s wrong with her?

Question: Are you skeptical of somebody who’s been out of work a long time?

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25 thoughts on “50 and Out of Work

  1. JL

    I think this is typical problem for more experienced teachers. School administrators look at salary, and pay very little attention to experience and qualifications. The best teacher I had in high school was a math and science teacher. He had a associates degree in mechanical engineering and real world experience before going back to school to become a teacher. Last year the school made him part time only giving him 2 classes per day. Former students wrote the board stating that this teacher led them to the career paths the took. It did not make a difference, less experienced and most likely lower salary teachers remained in the full time positions.

    1. Mac Doodle

      JL is right on the money. No pun intended. Diana’s plight has nothing to do with her ability and everything to do with her price tag relative to the subject she excels at. There probably is a compensation range that will get her hired but it is not satisfactory to Diana. The bigger issue lies with publicly subsidized occupations/professions/industries, i.e., teachers, municipal workers, government departments/agencies employees, etc., and that compensation tends not to reflect true economics through supply and demand but more about collective bargaining. The result are salaries and benefits that tend to become inflated and are not sustainable.

      1. Josh

        Are you making the claim that teachers make too much money and have inflated compensation? That’s ridiculous, they are one of the lowest paid professions with regard to how absolutely important the work they’re doing is. Your argument may make sense in certain sectors of the public workforce but I really have to disagree with you if you’re throwing that accusation at teachers.

      2. Ron B

        Josh, I don’t believe that Mac is suggesting teachers make too much… it’s the fact that entry level makes less period. Economics control the reasoning… not quality.

  2. Art Santana

    Lloyd: It is a way different world out there for teachers; Notice that she is a music teacher and she is probably a fantastic one at that. Music programs are being closed right and left; unfortunately, music has been one of the first things school districts are cutting in order to make budgets. 10 years ago; my kids had to compete in order to make a music program and I may say that it pays handsomely because it teaches them the discipline to be good at Math and Science, today with all the cuts; teachers are begging kids to join the band or orchestra. no luck, since no one is teaching them at grade level anymore to get them started. The state of education in this great land just continues to deteriorate. There is probably nothing wrong with that woman; the system has just claimed another victim.

  3. Erik

    I know nothing about the marketability of teachers, but anyone in manufacturing today who has been out of work for a long time I look at with great skepticism.

    We have had a number of people apply for a job with us who say “I need to find work, my benefits are running out.” Needless to say, they are not given much consideration.

    1. MIke G

      Spot On Erik with whom you give consideration for employment.

      One very often looked at for those unemployed is ”Volunteer work”. Yes this means you do not get paid to do work but it demonstrates your willing to work while unemployed collecting a unemployment check. My guess is if your not willing to really look for work until the benefits expire, your just not plain willing to work.

      Another reality many may face is ”not getting paid what their worth” Well welcome to the real world. Public schools can never really duplicate real world realities. If the unions are enough of a wet blanket just consider ”No Child left behind law” Not to mention how every kid is now gifted some how. This adds meaningless additional cost to the education equation for a feel good policy that does NOTHING.

      If schools were privatized and not under the hammer of the unions you would see teachers get paid what their worth because they would have to ”produce”

      The other real problem there is people do not directly pay for public school. yes through taxes either property or sales but never have to write a check of what it costs. So it is not appreciated but considered a entitlement. Same goes for health care insurance. We pay a insurance company to pay or medical bills, again NO direct connection between service and cost of service.

      1. Josh

        If schools were privatized you would see gigantic swaths of our communities unable to afford education. I agree with you about healthcare though.

  4. Val Zanchuk

    Unfortunately, this shows one of the differences between the profit world and the non -profit world. The profit people can increase revenue and/or profit by employing an experienced person. We would do a cost/benefit analysis to see if the increase in revenue exceeded the cost of the person.We also recognize the diffusional nature of such as person being in the organization. Their knowledge and experience are shared among other employees and the overall organization improves (not always, but often). In the non-profit world, cost is the driver since they cannot increase easily revenue. The cheaper teacher costs less than the experienced teacher regardless of the quality of the teacher and the outcome of the “learning” experience. This shortsighted mentality has unfortunately been applied in the profit world as well. Send your manufacturing to China because it is cheaper, not because it is better.

  5. Brent Mackintosh

    The hardships many teachers are facing has no comparison in the world of machining. Seasoned teachers are laid off and replaced with younger, less expensive recent college grads. Often times, districts have a maximum experience policy, i.e. no more than two years experience, thus experienced teachers have a hard time getting re-hired. This is due to union scale salaries, i.e. 15-20 year veterans can make $50-75K, while new teachers can be paid $20-25K. A laid off, experienced teacher cannot negotiate their salary with a new district, and must abide by the union scale. I have even heard of school districts under budgetary stress asking for permission to lay off the more expensive teachers, citing economic emergency.

    I wonder if economics played a roll in this woman’s removal. It would be interesting to hear the union’s side to why they allowed this teacher to be turned away and replaced by less experienced staff.

  6. Tom Hogge

    Don`t know about teaching profession (except instructors in metal working) But I would gladly welcome resumes of fifty years young C.N.C. machinists, screw machinists ,Quality technicians, Industrial Engineers, machine tool programmers, Tool makers or Tool grinders. Starting salary in South Carolina would exceed their age. Plus benefit package. Is this Free ad??

  7. JM

    There is no job more admirable than teachers who go out of their way to provide a good quality education for their students. There are several in my immediate family. Unfortunately, the admiration for teachers has dwindled in recent years. Parents seem to feel that their little Johnny DESERVES to have an education and is ENTITLED to good grades whether or not he does anything productive in the classroom or does their homework. If I goofed-off in school, I was punished. Today, if a student goofs-off, the teacher is punished. I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it.

    1. Josh

      Little Johnny does DESERVE a good education, but he isn’t entitled to good grades that is correct. He deserves an education however because we as a society have decided it’s better to have an educated populace for a large variety of reasons that make absolute economic and political sense. But this business of moving people to the next grade when they can’t master the current one has certainly got to stop.

  8. Jim McNamara

    My wife works for a suburban school district in Illinois. She is a full time teaching assistant in a proven program that seeks to identify gifted students. She and her co-workers in this program will be let go next year due to “financial constraints” on the school district. We claim to value learning, yet our communities will not pay for the programs that make learning possible for challenged, average and gifted students. We attack teachers as overpaid and underworked slackers, yet we tell these same people that they need to continue to train, seek more educational degrees and – by the way – do it on their own time. I think we all need to do a reality check on education!

  9. James Fillmore

    You 50+ Lloyd?

    50 now-a-day means your overpaid, “inbred”, been with the company TOO long, look old, GET OUT.


  10. Jim McQ.

    Over the years I’ve interview a lot of applicants for all types of manufacturing positions for the company I work for. When I see long gaps in their employment history, with an explanation that they were either self employed or doing consulting work during those times, my antenna quickly goes up. To bluntly answer your question, Yes, I’m skeptical when a supposedly highly qualified, resourceful person can’t land a job.
    On the other hand I’m over 50, and I see these sharp new CEO’s coming on board and they see us older guys as stumbling blocks to “Change”. The experience of the guys over 50 is viewed as the ramblings of old guys stuck in a decades old time warp. The new kids want diversity, shorter work days, better coffee, and more bling in the office.
    I was told years ago that every generation has the right to make their own mistakes, and hopefully to learn from them. Time marches on and we continue to make progress innovating better products and ways to supply them. Two steps forward and one step back equal a gain of one step at a time. If Youth would listen to Experience, and Experience would draw strength from Youth we could take three steps forward and…. maybe…. only one step back. We have to be constantly on guard in order to avoid being the one that overlooks the value of an individual based on any type of prejudges we might have.

  11. allen

    Lloyd, teaching skill’s only relevant to job prospects where teaching skill is valued. Since the quality of the teaching staff is unconnected with the budget – the closest approximation to sales in the private sphere – the question that begs for an answer is why anyone would think teaching skill’s valued in the public education system?

    How much value would you place on the skills of your employees if those skills were irrelevant to the health of your business?

    Maybe you’d ignore the unimportance of those skills to your bottom line because you have a commitment to excellence that doesn’t require a monetary reward but that would make you a bit atypical. People like to be paid for their skills and they expect to be paid more if they’re more skillful. Public education teachers can look forward to neither of those considerations and you might want to accept that fact if you want to understand why a Golden Apple teacher can be casually fired.

    What I find puzzling is that there’s so little understanding of the lack of importance the public education system places on teaching skill. After all, teachers don’t get paid more for being better teachers but for simply being around longer. The two might have something to do with each other but no effort’s ever been made to establish the connection and in the real world you measure what you value.

    That explains your reaction to the teacher’s situation.

    In your world someone who can’t find a job, even though they’ve got the requisite skills, are damaged goods and best steered clear of. Not too surprisingly you apply the same consideration to the teaching profession. But it doesn’t apply because a lousy teacher’s not a problem and a good teacher’s not a solution. As long as they file their paperwork on time and don’t get caught screwing students they’re, by the standards of the public education system, a good teacher.

    So the question I’ve got for you, having answered your question, is what would you do about the public education system to ensure that it does value teaching skill?

  12. C fas

    I recently read that teachers in the state of Illinois are the highest paid in the nation. My take is that this is about salary not ability.

  13. Brian Madden

    If the music teacher was anything to do with “marching bands”, well that’s not music! But, if she was teaching woodwind, or strings then, we need them. By the way I am 67 and can still find work as a set up, rebuild screw machine guy!

  14. Donna

    Immediately the first thing that I noticed was ‘music.’ Music and Art are the first things to be cut from a budget and all our schools are struggling now. I imagine she is a wonderful teacher who gives of herself and her talent to reach children, and at 50 she would be higher up on the pay scale. They could probably hire 2 new teachers fresh out of college for the cost of one experienced teacher. I find it a sad situation and it stretches from elementary school all the way through college. I see teachers ‘pink slipped’ that have taught in the same school for 14 years and on the college level I see that if a professor retires, they don’t replace that person with a full time permanent one. Instead, they use 3 adjunct people part time so they don’t have to pay them any benefits. The programs suffer and the continuity is gone. I have 2 daughters who both teach and one with a Masters degree. Having that additional degree that she paid for herself and went to school nights while teaching full time days, would make it more difficult if she were laid off since they have to pay you more if you have earned that degree. She teaches in a low income, Title 1 school and she says she wouldn’t trade it for the most affluent school because she knows she makes a difference to these children. There is rarely any parental help at home or volunteers in the classroom since these parents are already working to support their family and most only have one parent or a grandparent raising them. Lunch is sometimes their first meal of the day, but they are expected to learn and produce good grades and the teacher is blamed if their test scores are not high enough. The other end of the spectrum are the more affluent schools with 10+ parents in one room asking to volunteer and help, and they help their children with homework at night, so their test scores show it. The teacher gets the praise for those scores too. I see all the hours the teachers put in outside of school too, preparing and grading, testing, recording scores, etc. It isn’t just a job that ends in the classroom each night. My husband was a college professor for 38 years and just recently retired. The reward is that they are now seeing former students who have come back to find them still teaching and telling them what a difference they made in their life.

  15. Cindy

    For those of you who think you know anything about the public education system these days – when was the last time you set foot in a classroom – at any grade level? I’d be willing to bet that the average answer to this question (from industrial/manufacturing/corporate types would go something like about 30+ years.
    For your information —- the schools you attended back in your day have no resemblance whatsoever to schools today.
    And as far as a teacher of music not being able to find a job? Like several people said – the “extras” – music, music appreciation – anything to do with arts — have been cut to the bare bones, if there is even any kind of such program at all – – everything is about math, science, technology.
    My daughter is a kindergarten teacher with about 20 kids (5 yrs old or thereabouts depending on birth dates) – and she works her butt off and spends long hours at school – she stays till between 6 and 7pm every night, for the most part. She is a wonderful, caring young woman (32 yrs. old) with two newborn babies (preemies) one is still in the hospital and one is at home. She loves her classroom kids, but every year she finds teaching to be more and more stressful because teachers cannot teach anymore – all the nonsense that goes on with parents/school administration (she had a child that would not keep his hands off the other kids – what was the solution? She had to draw up a “contract” with the kid’s parents (per the demand (not request) from her principal that this kid had to have 25 infractions before any discipline could be administered. You think I’m kidding? Go talk to a few teachers.
    So – you’re comparing apples to oranges – a teacher’s job cannot be compared to other worker’s jobs – at all. I’m an executive secretary – I don’t have to have so many hours of class every year to keep my credentials up – teachers do. How many regular jobs have to do that? Teachers get very little credit and very little appreciation for what they do – you think teachers become teachers for the money? Of course not – there’s a lot more money to be had in the corporate world than there is in teaching. But, these people usually do it because they love kids and they want to make a difference in their lives. There’s always bad apples in any profession – but, teachers – in my opinion – are some of this world’s greatest unsung heroes. And, amen about the parental involvement – it is practically “zilch” these days. And yes – the teachers get the blame – not the parents.

  16. Jim Goerges

    To start this seems to be a tragic event, I really feel for this person. We must assume that she is hard working and dedicated, otherwise how could she have deserved and received such an award! Why the firing? Unfortunately, as business owners we look to everything with a guarded view. I don’t disagree that our first impression should not be our final judgement, ie., don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

    Several things seem odd, first being how could this happen? Teacher’s who are sex offenders are still on the payroll in several states, New York, California, and Massachusetts due to union rules and tenure, why is that is another question. So it seems odd that the union would let such a thing happen without justifiable cause, so this must be explained or no one would take the risk of hiring a person with this unfortunate “baggage”.

    In today’s market place, it seems quality, dedication, wonderful work history, references and excellence are hard finds with too many of people looking for work that have experience in the field they are looking for work in and yet find themselves without work. So anyone who has experience does need to be looked at with both eyes wide open.

    I do hope and will pray for this lady in hopes she finds what she is needing and looking for, amen.

  17. Lloyd Graff

    I am thrilled about the way this blog was received and the thoughtful and passionate posts. This is the Web at its best and I thank you for educating me.
    When I wrote the piece I was self centered on my gut cynicism about Ms O’Connor’s failed job search, but I am pleased that the readers went off on the more crucial topic of teaching and it’s lack of respect at least, economically.
    Fortunately, I get to see elite teachers, I.e. my wife and daughter who are respected and reasonably well paid because they work outside the public school system. My wife deals with teachers in South Suburban Chicago and administrators and rarely complains about her encounters. In my area Charter Schools are rare and Teachers Unions are strong. Though I feel that the Unions have manipulated the School Boards and gamed the system to their advantage I think most teachers still try hard to do well by their students. I think that education has deteriorated in the last many years because parents demand and expect less and less from their children. We get the education for our kids by pushing the system or finding alternative education. If we leave education just to “them” the teachers and administrators we will get what they give us. If we leave it just to the kids we will also get mediocrity. If we clearly send the message that we expect excellence and creativity we will get a lot more of it.


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