TRAVERSE CITY — Paul Fretheim hasn’t been able to land a permanent job since 2005, but he doesn’t think it’s age that holds him back.
“One thing I know that’s prevented me from getting a job is that I’m a man,” said Fretheim, 60. “I was told that in two interviews. And I know a lot of male employers want to hire a man to do office work.”
Fretheim worked as an administrative assistant for 15 years at Tower Automotive, but lost his job when the company filed for bankruptcy. He found temporary work drawing tax maps on a computer, but after the work was done, so was the job.
To update his computer skills, Fretheim, 60, signed on with Experience Works, which runs a program that pays low-income people 55 years and older to work for area nonprofits. In exchange, the nonprofit must help build the employee’s work skills, which helps in finding permanent work — maybe even with the nonprofit itself.
Fretheim works part-time at the Old Town Playhouse at minimum wage, hardly enough to support himself and his wife, who can’t work. But he’s learning how to use the newer software, finding job leads, and taking required online classes on a library computer.
Fretheim is one of the bright stars of Experience Works, a national nonprofit that began as Green Thumb, created in 1965 to help poor farmers and older adults find jobs and break out of poverty. Its biggest program is the federally funded Senior Community Service Employment Program.
The program gained new vitality this past year when Angela Murphy filled a position in Traverse City as employment and training coordinator; her office is housed in the Northwest Michigan Works building. The 13-county northwest area previously was overseen by the Experience Works state office in Bay City, Murphy said.
Murphy matches an employee’s skills with what a nonprofit says it needs.
“It’s like dating,” said Carly McCall. “Is this going to be a match where you can contribute to each other?”
McCall, business manager at Old Town Playhouse, is Fretheim’s supervisor.
“Paul brings a different skill set to the table because of his background. He is meticulous — way more than the rest of us who are artsy … “ she said. “He’s a fabulous proofreader, and he’s got great attention to detail. The flip side is he was in city planning and mapping and manufacturing, which is all very different from working in theater, so we’re teaching him things.”
McCall said Experience Works also benefits nonprofits that can’t afford office support staff.
“We desperately need extra hands all the time,” she said.
Clients are allowed to stay in the program for up to four years, although the rule excludes those 75 years and older. The program limits their hours to 20 a week and pays only $7.40 an hour, minimum wage. That’s hardly a livable income, but it’s meant to supplement other programs, such as housing, health and food, Murphy said.
The program offers just 10 slots for Grand Traverse County and 50 in the 13-county area at any one time. In a year, about 150 people go through the program, Murphy said.
Many like Fretheim simply need to update their skills, while others might be homeless, newly released from prison, or recovering from an addiction, said Bonnie Comfort, an Experience Works assistant and participant.
“A lot of times when people come to us, they’re broken down. Especially the guys. They think they’re worthless,” Comfort said. “This gives them a huge boost in confidence.”
Meanwhile, Fretheim goes to Northwest Michigan Works every week, often by bus, just as he’s done for the past eight years to find a permanent job.
“I’ve probably set a record for going there,” he said. “Some people wonder why I haven’t given up.”