WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Joe Burklund of Des Moines, Iowa, lost his job at the depths of recession in 2009 after 30 years in the advertising and marketing industry, he never imagined another career.
He was almost 60 and optimistic he would land another job in his field, where he was earning $65,000 a year.
After collecting unemployment checks for a year, Burklund took a part-time job at grocery chain Trader Joe's. As he watched his retirement savings bleed almost dry, he realized his situation would not turn around anytime soon.
An acquaintance suggested he train for call center work, servicing banks and insurance companies. "I said, 'Well, I may as well try that because nothing else seems to be working,'" Burklund told Reuters.
Thousands of Americans aged 55 and older are going back to school and reinventing themselves to get an edge in a difficult labor market, hoping to rebuild retirement nest eggs that were almost destroyed by the recession.
"I went into it thinking 'I am not too sure I am cut out for call center work,' and I never really wanted to sell insurance. But I was willing to try anything to gain full employment," said Burklund, who has set aside hopes to retire at 65.
Within two weeks of completing the program, he had three interviews and two job offers. In March, he started working at Marsh Insurance.
A similar tale is recounted by Tom Halseth, about 380 miles east in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Halseth, 60, lost his job in May 2010 after 30 years as store manager with retail chain JC Penny. He spent 16 months unemployed.
Today, Halseth is a quality assurance technician with dried fruit packer Mariani Packing Company in Wisconsin Rapids. He landed the job after a rigorous five-month program that included biology, chemistry and math classes and a two-week internship.
According to the Federal Reserve, household financial assets, which exclude homes, dropped from a peak of $57 trillion in the third quarter of 2007 to just over $49 trillion in the fourth quarter of last year, the latest period for which data is available.
A survey to be released this summer by the Public Policy Institute of AARP, an advocacy group for older Americans, found a quarter of Americans 50 years and older used up all their savings during the 2007-09 recession. About 43 percent of the 5,000 respondents who took part in the survey said their savings had not recovered.
Many older workers who lost jobs during the downturn are too young to retire and usually would not be considered ideal for retraining.
Independent groups like the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, which is working with local communities and businesses to build skills and careers for workers and job seekers, are working to debunk that myth.
In the last four years, the Fund has helped about 1,860 Americans 55 years and older retrain for new jobs.
According to data from the Labor Department, 2.65 million people participated in its Workforce Investment Act programs in 2011. Those programs, which are also designed to help people find jobs, are separate from those run by independent groups like the National Fund for Workforce Solutions.
About 345,000, or 13 percent of participants in the Workforce Investment Act programs, were 55 years and older.
"If they have a 20-year record of being a great worker, companies will take them," said Fred Dedrick, executive director at the National Fund.
He said the Fund, which worked with the academy in Iowa that trained Burklund and with the Mid-State Technical College in Wisconsin, where Halseth received his food manufacturing science certificate, has a 60 percent to 70 percent success rate finding jobs for graduates.
"It also depends on the labor market. If you have an unemployment rate of 4 or 5 percent they will take them," said Dedrick.
"But if you have a high unemployment rate of say 10 percent, and you have the choice of investing in somebody who is 50 or somebody who is 30, of course you will invest in the younger worker because they will be around longer."
The unemployment rate for workers 55 years and older edged up to 6.3 percent in April from 6.2 percent in March. This age group accounted for 16 percent of the 12.5 million unemployed Americans last month.
While the jobless rate for older Americans is much lower than the 8.1 percent national rate, it is double what it was when the recession started in December 2007, a statistic with which people like Paulette Gordon, 59, are all too familiar.
Gordon, from Houston, Texas, lost her job as a technical analyst for energy companies two years ago after three decades structuring acquisitions of oil and gas wells.
She brushed up her resume to include administration skills. So far that has not yielded anything and last month she sold her jewelry to pay rent.
"I am surviving by the grace of God," Gordon said.
Productivity experts like Frank Lonergan say it is a mistake to overlook these so-called baby boomers, given their wealth of experience.
Lonergan, whose company Ancile Solutions helps businesses to improve employee productivity through training, argues there is not much difference in terms of performance between a 25-year-old worker and a 55-year-old one if both are afforded the right opportunities.
While it is a reasonable expectation that somebody hired at 55 would want to retire at 65, it could also be argued that a 25-year-old would probably not build a career at a single company, he said.
"I think a 55-year-old worker who has the opportunity to come in and is given the right framework to help them get on board would have a much longer tenure than a 25-year-old," said Lonergan. "The tendency for 25-year-old workers is to look at accelerating their career after two or three years."
Even with new skills, older workers are re-entering the labor market at very low salaries, in most cases just above the minimum wage, which can be as low as $5.15 an hour and no higher than $9.04 an hour, depending on the state.
Given the damage inflicted on their savings by the recession, this means many will probably continue to work well past the usual retirement age of 65, a fact acknowledged by both Burklund and Halseth.
The share of Americans 55 years and older who are in the work force - which means either working or unemployed but looking for a job - is 1.4 percentage points higher than when the recession started.
In contrast, the overall labor force participation rate dropped in April to a 30-year low.
Last month, 4.6 percent of workers aged 55 and older held more than one job, according to AARP and government data.
Halseth declined to specify his salary, but said it was a third of what he made as a JC Penny store manager. "While what I am making now is well above minimum wage, it would be hard to make a good living out of it," he said.
"At least I have a job and the possibility of going up. My 401k (retirement plan) was ravaged by the recession; that's one of the reasons I will keep working," said Halseth. "Before, I could have retired at 62 and retired comfortably, but I can't do that anymore. I want to work until 70, if I could."
Similar sentiments were expressed by Burklund.
"Right now I am making $32,000 a year and there is a bonus program. I may not retire until my late 60s," said Burklund, who likes to joke that he will retire six months after his death.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Dan Grebler)
This has been corrected to change spelling of productivity expert's surname to Lonergan from Lonergen