Older job hunters face a double whammy these days — a tough job market and younger competition. Here's how to play your age to your advantage.

ROBERT KIMMEL REMEMBERS when he first felt his age could throw a wrench into his job search. Two years ago the then 57-year-old marketing executive in Philadelphia interviewed at a hot advertising agency. He was confident he had the skills to head the marketing department there. But as he entered the company's conference room filled with funky, colorful furniture in all different shapes and sizes, he felt unnerved. Oh, boy, Kimmel thought to himself. Then he was introduced to the agency's president. "He was probably 33 years old, but looked even younger," Kimmel says. Somehow, he knew he wouldn't be getting the job. "They were as gracious as could be," he says. "But when the average age at an office is about 27 and there's no gray hair, you get the feeling you don't fit in there."

It's a tough job market these days. But it's even tougher if you're over 50. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year job hunters ages 55 to 64 were unemployed for 21.6 weeks on average, compared with 16 weeks for those 25 to 34. The biggest problem you face as an older worker: You're competing for spots that can often be filled more cheaply by younger workers. But don't panic just yet. If you play it right, you can transform your age from an obstacle into an advantage. Here's how to do it.

Cut the Nostalgia
Like most job hunters, Bob Wolfe, a software engineer who'll reveal only that he's over 49, wanted to show off his skills during an interview at the Danbury, Conn., office of aerospace and optics manufacturer Goodrich Corp. last November. There was just one snag: His experience in the aerospace field was two decades old. How did Wolfe sidestep that? By focusing on how he had solved problems in the past. There was the time, for instance, when he found an error in a software program NASA used that made it difficult to translate satellite data onto maps. "I described how I detected the problem, explaining that I have a knack for guessing at the things people might do wrong," Wolfe says. What he left out: the fact that he had done this in the late '70s.

Your experience may be dated, but that doesn't mean your skills are too. "Focus less on nostalgia and more on the relevance of your skills," says Dale Klamfoth, a regional vice president at outplacement firm DBM. Wolfe did, and he got the job.

Odd Jobs
Slow in the City
"Elderly Walker. Looking for one young spunky man or woman to walk a large group of elderly men through the city...once a day in the afternoon. Walker must know of interesting paths through the city and have extensive knowledge of the best public restrooms. Must be comfortable walking slowly on busy streets and possibly angering other passersby. Should be able to sing Cab Calloway and dance the Charleston. Needs to speak loudly, some old men fought in tanks and can't hear well."
Unidentified employer
New York
Craigslist.org, Jan. 10
Bass and Switch
"Electric Bass Guitar Player. You will be required to enlist into the Army (full-time) or Army Reserve (part-time) for this position. Performs all applicable styles of music. Expected styles include, but are not limited to, the following: marching band, ceremonial band, classical, jazz, ethnic and popular music compositions."
United States Army
CareerBuilder.com, Feb. 22

Break out the Rolodex
Mitch Wienick, a partner at the Wayne, Pa., executive coaching firm Kelleher Associates, always tells his older clients to figure out what sets them apart, especially from a younger applicant. Maybe you pulled a company through the recession in the early '80s. No young hotshot can say he's done that.

Wienick gave the same advice to Robert Kimmel, the executive who struck out at the hip ad agency. Kimmel had nearly 15 years of marketing experience at the Albert Einstein Healthcare Network in Philadelphia. But after two years of looking, he was still jobless. "I'd developed a track record and could attach numbers to what I'd done, but so could any other 30- and 40-year-old," says Kimmel. Wienick steered him toward one thing he had overlooked: his huge Rolodex, with hundreds of contacts in the health industry. "How many people at age 30 have that? Not many," Kimmel recalls telling himself. So he turned to fields where his Rolodex would be of value.

That's when he heard Banister International, an executive search firm, was launching a practice in health care. In his interview, Kimmel made sure to bring up his contacts. "At one point the conversation turned to companies I might target," he says. "I picked several where I could name CEOs I was on friendly terms with." Kimmel also got a boost a few days later when one of Banister's principals ran into one of Kimmel's CEO friends. "My name came up. And my friend said, 'You have the chance to hire Kimmel? Snap him up!'"

Flaunt Your Empty Nest
One asset most older workers have that they often fail to sell is time. With the kids grown, there are no school plays to rush out for, no day care emergencies — and no reason not to travel. "Many jobs require travel — and it can be difficult for companies to find people willing to do that after 9/11," says Carol R. Anderson, a career counselor in New York.

Bill Shank, 53, homed in on this when he interviewed with outplacement firm Spherion in 2001. The company wanted managers for short-term assignments around the country. "I anticipated that being on-site would be very important, so I said, 'My kids are grown up; I like to travel; my wife is comfortable with this setup,'" Shank says. He got assigned to a subsidiary of the energy giant Shell in Houston, where he works weekdays. On weekends, he can fly home to Delaware.

Tools of the Trade
The Ultimate Eraser
Sure, you can keep that old work report from prying eyes by running it through a shredder. But what about the floppy disk you saved the file on? Royal's new MD100 Media Destroyer ($130; 888-261-4555) can help you out. The small machine, 7 1/2" x 9 1/2" x 10", is a mighty shredder in disguise. It turns floppy disks, compact disks and credit cards into little shards in seconds. And you can get rid of your old shredder-the Media Destroyer also gobbles up seven sheets of paper at a time.
— Noah Rothbaum

Make Your Benefits Count
If you're going back to work after an early retirement, you may have one more card to play — your benefits package from a previous employer. The cost of providing health care is a growing burden on companies, so if you already have the coverage, lay it on the table. Bob Wolfe, the software engineer, is glad he did. As part of his buyout package at IBM, where Wolfe last worked, he got health benefits for life. He didn't need them from Goodrich. "When we started to dance around the salary issue, I made it clear they would save money on me because I was covered medically," Wolfe says. He figures it helped. Not only did he get the job, but he also got the salary he wanted.

Working Solutions
Question:
I plan to retire this year, after 37 years with my company. I am being offered a "career transition package," which will give me a one-time check of around $275,000, or about 2.6 times my annual salary. Is there any way to avoid the high taxation on this?
— P.S., Atlanta

Answer:
The best you can do is chip away at your tax bill. First, max out your 401(k). Then ask for a deferred settlement agreement, where the company holds the money and pays you in increments. "It would permit them to hold on to the cash, so they probably wouldn't object," says Mark Luscombe, principal analyst at tax-information firm CCH. Ask for part of the sum now and the rest in 2004. Creditors could claim your funds if the company goes bankrupt, though. Also check to see if your state lets you prepay next year's estimated state income tax or property tax. You can then deduct them on your state and federal taxes. Feeling charitable? Open a donor-advised fund (at least $10,000 is usually required) and deduct the full amount.
— Anne Kadet