An interesting take on ageism in the Alaskan workplace

Alaska is getting older every day. We expect by 2030 that 30% of us will be 55 and older and still in the workforce, so Alaska has a different issue. We are trying to bring retirees back into the workforce. – Rita Gray, MASST

I had a most interesting conversation in mid-January with Rita Gray, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Mature Alaskans Seeking Skills Training (MASST). I wanted to discuss ageism against seniors in the Alaskan workplace. Her response was not what I expected. Selections from the interview follow and have been edited for length and clarity.

Weiss: I wonder if you could say just a few words about what The Mature Alaskans Seeking Skills Training (MASST) is and does.

Gray: MASST is a community service where we bring seniors who have already retired or have been out of the workforce for a while and who are sitting alone or needing something to do so that they’re not isolated within their homes. Most seniors that we help are on the verge of homelessness or loneliness because their spouse has passed on and they lost 50% of their income. By the time we see somebody that needs assistance, they’re on the verge of despair because they were too proud to tell people that they needed help. And now they need to go back to work.

Think about senior centers where we’re helping people get meals, or think about job centers where we’re trying to help older workers get jobs, or think about hospitals where we’re helping veterans get to their appointments. So it could be any community service at a [nonprofit] 501(c)(3) organization.

We pay them $10.85 an hour and we train them from 20 to 25 hours a week to give volunteer work. But while they’re getting their volunteer work, they’re getting current skill sets and looking for employment, if that’s their goal. If that’s not their goal, then we help them with social activities so that they are not isolated by themselves. We always work with job centers to see if there’s a job available first before we put them in a minimum wage job. And there’s just a lot of work.

Weiss: Please discuss age discrimination against older Alaskans who are trying to get into or back into the workforce.

Gray: It depends on the industry. Most employers really value older workers because they have so many competencies, and they’re the last generation of rote learners so they know how to do math and English and networking already. I can see where people are aging out of fishery jobs or construction jobs. But if they’re good workers, they train them to be the managers or the mentors of those folks.

It’s hard to see somebody sitting there that’s smart and not giving back to society. And mostly we’re trying to reopen the doors so that we can get Alaska back to how it was before the pandemic. The people that kept Alaska open during the pandemic were mostly all the old people because they were fearless. I know age is hard for some fields like software and changing technologies, but Alaskans are so used to doing things depending on what they have that they don’t seem to be bothered if somebody can help out.

Weiss: That’s an interesting perspective. Nationally, for example, retail sales are one of the hot spots of ageism. What’s the situation in Alaska?

Gray: The reason why is because those people are harsh, and they make [retail sales workers] stand on concrete and they won’t let them sit on a little bench or something. And they won’t let them go to the bathroom or take breaks. And if you’ve ever stood around, it’s really hard to not be able to take a break every hour. But given the right employers with a little bit of accommodation, [older workers] are excellent because they have good customer services, they know how to count change, they ask people if they need help, and they’re so polite! Usually once the employer hires an older worker, they tend to keep them until they die or retire because they’re so reliable and loyal. They usually aren’t playing on their phones, and they usually ask, “What else can I do to help?”

Weiss: A reason that’s often given for not wanting to hire older employees is that you can pay less to younger ones.

Gray: Well, it depends, because [older employees] already have health insurance, and they can work a flexible schedule because they don’t have to worry about their kids, they can work day hours, night hours, and they can work additional shifts. As a person grows older, their family responsibilities grow less. Employers actually do love older workers because of that.

To find out more about the MASST program in your area, call 907-269-2029. If you believe you have been a victim of age discrimination at work, contact the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights at 907-274-4692.

Author Bio

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.