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Older Workers Rebuild Professional Networks With the Help of LinkedIn

It's not just job ads that have gone online. Networking has gone virtual, too.

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Mark Stein ended up in a tough spot last year, just before turning 58. A change in management at the firm he worked at in Connecticut meant he needed to find a new job—and soon. Stein checked job boards, called friends and sent résumés. Then he focused on another tactic: fixing up his LinkedIn profile that he had set up years ago, and using it aggressively.

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Out went Stein’s dated photo, showing him in a casual shirt, replaced by one with him in a suit and tie. He rewrote his summary to describe his skills as a communications professional, replacing a rambling paragraph listing former jobs and personal interests.

Stein made LinkedIn part of his daily job search routine. He set criteria for notification of job openings and used his connections to learn more about those openings. For one posting, he realized his network included a former colleague, who once worked with a manager at the think tank Stein was applying to. Stein reached out. “I asked, ‘What would it take to make me stand out?’ ” The former colleague gave him useful advice and offered to contact the manager. Stein tailored his application accordingly. He got the job.

It’s not just job ads that have gone online. Networking has gone virtual, too. And LinkedIn, a website that calls itself the world’s largest professional network, is a key tool. Like other social media platforms, you create a profile and connect with other users. You can job search, find former colleagues, follow companies, or join industry and business groups. About 21% of LinkedIn users are ages 50 to 64, and another 8% are 65 and older, according to Pew Research Center. For an idea of just how big a deal LinkedIn is, this past December Microsoft acquired it for about $26 billion.

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If you’re actively looking for a new job, you can’t just set up a LinkedIn account and sit back. Instead, like Stein, sharpen your strategy for using it. Say you’ve been a marketing professional for 30 years. You could spiff up your profile to show that you are interested in social media and innovation, on top of industry trends and current with your online training. “It’s totally how you spin it,” says Kerry Hannon, AARP’s jobs expert.

After signing up for an account at LinkedIn.com, fill out the fields listing your experience and education. For inspiration, find examples of profiles you like. Take LinkedIn’s free online tutorials. Skip overused buzzwords, such as “passionate” and “specialized.” And don’t confuse it with Facebook. “LinkedIn is strictly professional,” says Lori Russo, president of Stanton Communications, in Washington, D.C.

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Post a profile photo that’s less than five years old, and don’t try to hide your age. “No ’80s hair,” says career coach Janice Burch, co-founder of Pro Resume Center, in Milwaukee. Rather, go for an action shot—holding a microphone and leading a presentation.

Mind your online etiquette. Send “connection” requests to people you know well, from friends to former co-workers. Sending out invitations blindly may annoy the recipients. Follow only companies that interest you and comment on pertinent posts.

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Creating Your Connections

Your long career gives you an advantage: a massive network. Use LinkedIn to activate it, as Stein did. Get recommendations reflecting your experience and accomplishments from colleagues of different ages. That sends a subtle message that you work well with younger professionals, says Nicole Williams, chief executive officer of Works, a New York–based career consulting firm. Post updated training. Include videos and presentations. Contrary to what you may have heard, don’t leave out all your previous experience, she says. Employers figure it out anyway. Plus, it can give you an edge over younger job seekers, Williams says.

If you want to volunteer or find a board seat, participate in industry groups. And use LinkedIn’s alumni tool to send a note to fellow college alums.

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