A Day in the Life of a Counselor: Volunteering Service with the AARP
By Jill Flansburg
One of my strongest professional interests is in career counseling for older workers. Throughout 2010, I volunteered with AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons to further my experience with this population. AARP launched an employment-related campaign called Helping Experience Work @ 50+. Activities featured job fairs across the U.S., and I attended and counseled at the fairs in Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa Florida. Besides individual career advice, AARP also provided an hour long PowerPoint session teaching effective job search skills for this unique audience. This experience led me to continue my volunteer work as a career counselor for the AARP National Convention which was held in Orlando from September 30 through October 2, 2010. It was held in the Orange County Convention Center, a structure that is bigger than the town I grew up in, with multiple restaurants, conference rooms, a concert hall and a movie theater. According to the AARP website, there were 25,000 in attendance from all over the country.
The exhibit hall was set up with information booths for health care resources, investment opportunities, technology, leisure options, food and games and other attractions. It was reminiscent of a carnival atmosphere, with a plethora of activity and diverse people. Many booths gave away pins, toys and other small keepsakes, and attendees filed past with bags and bags full of free goodies. There were demonstrations, seminars and events featuring famous guests, such as the question and answer segment between Whoopi Goldberg and Larry King.
AARP representatives from various Florida offices and national headquarters were present to staff the booths and assist attendees, and plenty of support was provided for the eager volunteers. For the national convention, AARP asked for 1,200 volunteers for various duties, such as providing directions, greeting members, etc. Specifically at the Career Center, I was one of six volunteer professional career counselors providing service throughout the convention. Our section of the Convention was advertised as the Career Center. Typically, there were two career counselors available at any given time, and a table with CDs and other materials offering tips about resume preparation and job search strategies. AARP developed training and assistance to bring the older job seeker up to speed with today’s suggested job search resources and strategies. For example, information about using social media and personal branding were shared, and attendees gained an understanding of the assets they possess as an older worker as compared to younger, more inexperienced workers, and how to use this as a selling point.
During the 1.5 days that I volunteered, approximately 100 individuals stopped by the Career Center to get individualized feedback about their job search and career exploration. I talked to a variety of persons of different ages who were looking for work or searching for a new career direction. Some were laid off from a career position; some were trying to decide what they wanted to do for their next career. Some had been unemployed for two or three years, while others had just recently left their last place of employment.
I was fortunate to work with a very diverse pool of clients – some were doing all the right things we normally suggest, but complained about the lack of interest from potential employers. Some clients just needed reassurance, some needed insightful tips and new strategies. Specifically, one woman was not looking for work herself, but was upset about the prospect of her brother losing his home due to lengthy unemployment. She gratefully accepted a tissue and tearfully thanked me before moving back into the exhibit hall. One woman finished a career in education and wanted to start her own business; a poorly timed option, she felt, in light of the economy. Neither of these women were about to give up hope or stop their efforts to succeed, and I was thankful to be of assistance to them during their transitions.
Unfortunately, some of the older job seekers I met were clearly frustrated and just wanted to argue. “I’ve tried that.” and “I don’t want to do that.” were their defensive responses to my proactive suggestions. As I mentioned, perhaps this combative attitude arises from frustration. Perhaps they did not trust me and the other Career Counselors to know what the labor market is really like for older workers, or how it feels to have mastered skills only to be ignored by employers. But fortunately in contrast, the majority of clients was surprised that we really did listen without judgment and try to understand their unique situations. Some are surprised and thankful when we offered new ideas and suggestions for them to try next. Some were appreciative even when we were not able to offer any new ideas, but felt accomplished having achieved the goal of being heard and validated, and getting their story told.
All in all, it was a valuable experience for me as a career counselor in today’s ever changing business world. With 78 million Baby Boomers facing retirement age in the next 10 or 15 years, career counselors everywhere need to brush up on their cultural competence related to the older job seeker. If you have an opportunity to volunteer as a career counselor at the 2011 AARP national convention in Los Angeles, CA September 22-24, I highly recommend it. AARP offers a wonderfully diverse population of attendees, and I found it to be a reciprocal counseling relationship and a valuable experience, both personally and professionally. For more information on volunteering, please visit the Life@50+, AARP’s National Event and Expo website.
Jill D. Flansburg received a BS degree in psychology from the University of Iowa, an MA degree in counselor education from the University of South Florida, and is currently a Ph.D. student in counselor education at the University of South Florida with a concentration in career counseling and industrial/organizational psychology. She has 25 years of practical experience as a career counselor and supervisor in the private non-profit, vocational rehabilitation sector, and is nationally certified as a vocational evaluator and a rehabilitation counselor. She has counseled persons with various disability conditions, at-risk youth, welfare recipients, Workers Compensation claimants, Social Security beneficiaries, older workers and privately referred individuals. Jill can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org