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Community Colleges

Act Two

Boomers turn to community colleges to prepare for 'encore careers.'
University Business, Nov 2007

THE WORKFORCE IS FEELING a squeeze from both ends of the generational spectrum. On one side, fewer high school age students means fewer young people entering college and the workforce. On the other side, baby boomers are starting to reach their sixties and retirement age. But there is a silver lining. Surveys conducted by Civic Ventures and AARP show that many boomers are intending to keep working after traditional retirement age, either for financial reasons or because they want to stay active.

Community colleges, long the Mecca for workforce training and retraining, are again meeting the challenge with programs geared toward baby boomers. "Community colleges have a strong tradition of being flexible," says Judy Goggin, vice president of Civic Ventures.

With support from the MetLife Foundation, the think tank recently awarded $25,000 grants to 10 community colleges that are training boomers for "encore careers" in the fields of health care, education, and social services. "Boomers are one of the most educated demographics. They already have bachelor's degrees and don't part of its student population. The resulting report, "Boomers Go to College," revealed a wealth of information ranging from the perceived youth culture at the college to the complaint that the desks are too small, says Jan Abushakrah, gerontology program director and co-chair of the administrators have realized that boomers need the kind of one-stop services for advising and enrollment provided to first-generation and low-income students. Receiving credit for prior work or life experience was also a big concern, because the students often didn't have time or money to waste in unnecessary classes. Boomers, especially the ones training for a new career, also don't want to be segregated into special senior classes.

'Boomers are one of the most educated demographics.' - Judy Goggin, Civic Ventures

"The older students are the canaries," she says. "They have been out in the world longer," so they know what was useful from the first time they were in college. She found the concerns baby boomers raised, such as needing one-stop services, could be applied to all students.

As for the education provided, one program provides training for home care workers and to help them transition to other positions when direct care becomes too physically demanding. Abushakrah explains that the gerontology program is an overlay to professions, ranging from health care to banking, to better serve the new demographic. She says a survey by the Oregon AARP showed that employers realized people would be retiring but hadn't done anything to prepare. So the college is launching an initiative to help local business address the issue. Administrators are also taking a look at the college's own policies addressing older workers.

Next to health care, teaching is another industry that faces chronic shortages. The grant received by the Virginia Community College System will be used to retool its fast-track teacher licensure program to target boomers. Susan Wood, assistant vice chancellor for education programs and instructional technology, says the program, which started in 2004, was already attracting people in their fifties and hopes to bring in older students. Because applicants are required to have earned a bachelor's degree and logged at least five years of work experience, 30 is about as young as participants get.

Since the program began, more than 200 people have received eligibility licenses and 150 are filling critical teacher shortages in areas such as math, science, English as a second language, and middle school. One graduate was named the teacher of the year by her school system. Wood says program participants have included lawyers, nurses, and construction workers. The program is refined with each cohort. One change was teaching classroom management in the first few months of the program instead of later on. The program is advertised through radio and newspaper ads and word of mouth.

The statewide program has six sites that use a hybrid delivery method consisting of asynchronous online work, and a real-time compressed video session once a week in lieu of face-to-face meetings. "The hybrid structure is tremendous," Wood says. "It's flexible, so students can keep working."

She adds they have shared information about the Career Switchers program at various conventions and people have been surprised by the hybrid structure. "My message is that it can work and it does work," she says. The comprehensive mission of the community college provides the infrastructure to support the program, while the program in turn rounds out the teacher education offerings provided.

While traditional senior programs have focused on leisure activities, the new breed focuses on turning those leisure pursuits into meaningful contributions. At Central Piedmont Community College (N.C.), the Civic Ventures grant is being used to offer a free program to 20 participants who are interested in transitioning from leadership positions in corporate careers to positions at nonprofits.

"We're hoping they will identify what will be their next encore career," says Ruth Huey, director for health and community services. The Success to Significance program is built around four components: career transition workshops, personal and career coaching, career exploration, and job mentoring. Participants are recruited to the program through the local chamber of commerce, human resource departments at local large businesses, and large nonprofits in the area where the volunteers might want to transition. Ads on the radio have also generated a good response, Huey says.

'The older students are the canaries. They have been out in the world longer.' - Jan Abushakrah, Portland Community College

The college had been offering courses ranging from caregiving to wine tasting and navigating the mid-life transition. Now the focus is more on retraining for careers. "We were looking to the future in terms of the numbers of baby boomers in our community and trying to serve and meet their needs," Huey says of the new workshops.

The Small Business Technology and Development Center at Washtenaw Community College is offering a similar service to the population of Michigan. Charlie Penner, regional director, explains that the center works with entrepreneurs who want to start a small business. Because of downsizing and uncertainty in the local corporate marketplace, many people are facing mid-career changes. "They don't want to just fill a slot somewhere-they want to pursue a passion," Penner says. "They have great skills and good severance packages and are looking for something meaningful to do for the next 20 years."

Through workshops and networking opportunities, the staff helps people who want to start a business manage the process, find resources, and be realistic about their idea. Keeping talent in Michigan is a motivating factor behind the program, which can feed people into programs at the community college or other community resources. Penner points out that outreach is important because people often don't know what assistance is available to them. He says it will be a long-term process of helping people make up their minds about what to do in their next stage of life.

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