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Law Opens Up ‘Encore’ Careers

Resource type: News

The Wall Street Journal |

Original Source

By Kelly Greene

The deep recession is forcing millions of Americans in their 50s and 60s to rethink plans for retirement. That shift — coupled with new legislation out of Washington — could help spur a commitment to national service not seen since the early days of the Peace Corps, say nonprofits.

Older adults and retirees long have donated their time, but have steered clear, for the most part, of establishing second careers in the nonprofit world or fields like teaching or nursing. Nonprofits, meanwhile, have long focused their recruiting efforts on younger adults. A 2007 Conference Board report found that nonprofits were lagging behind the government and private sectors in efforts to retain and recruit highly skilled older workers.

Now, with older adults looking for work to help patch broken nest eggs, and nonprofits needing additional manpower, the two groups are finding common ground.

The catalyst is the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act, which Congress has passed and President Obama is expected to sign shortly. The bill is designed to encourage more Americans to commit to national service and expand opportunities for them to do so. For instance, the size of AmeriCorps — which helps link volunteers nationwide with local needs in education, health care and housing, among other priorities — will be tripled to 250,000 slots from 75,000.

New Nonprofit Roles

For older Americans, in particular, the legislation creates for the first time a series of programs that will help direct retirees into new roles in nonprofit and public service, on the front lines and in management.

This reflects “a new attitude about what people who finish their midlife careers can contribute,” says John Gomperts, chief executive of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco nonprofit pushing for older Americans to use their skills to tackle societal ills.

To start, the legislation would expand nationwide a pilot project under way in California called Encore Fellows. This yearlong program is designed to help people who have finished, or are nearing the end of, their primary careers formally move into the nonprofit sector.

The bill sets up Encore fellowships in each state, with as many as 10 fellows per state. Individuals would help carry out service projects “in areas of national need,” including education, health, energy and the environment, and poverty. The program provides training for fellows to move into full- or part-time service in the nonprofit sector or government. The Corporation for National and Community Service, which also runs AmeriCorps, would select the fellows and potential “host” agencies. The federal government would pay each fellow a stipend of $11,000 a year and require the host agency to at least match that amount.

With 500 people a year at most participating, Encore Fellows aren’t going to single-handedly reshape public service. “What it can really do is help nonprofits understand that there’s a talent pool out there that they may be overlooking,” says David Simms, a partner with Bridgespan Group, a Boston adviser to nonprofits.

California Pilot Program

In northern California, Civic Ventures pulled together a pilot Encore Fellows program, largely with Hewlett-Packard Co. funding, to provide $25,000 Encore fellowships to 10 participants so far this year. John Armstrong, 53, quit his marketing job at H-P in December 2006 to volunteer with the Alliance for Climate Protection, Habitat for Humanity and other groups. Now, he’s using a fellowship to develop the job of communications and outreach coordinator for Environmental Volunteers, a local group that teaches elementary-school students about environmental issues.

“My work here brings some focus to all the volunteer activities I was doing,” Mr. Armstrong says. “Now, I feel like I’m able to make a bigger impact.”

From H-P to School

In San Francisco, Leslye Louie, 48, and Lyle Hurst, 54, are working together at Partners in School Innovation, which looks to improve literacy in low-income elementary schools. The two fellows are pushing to improve the group’s communications strategy and marketing materials, and create a system for tracking its progress in meeting its literacy goals. They took voluntary buyouts from H-P in 2005 and 2001, respectively.

“We were post-first career, in transition, and wanted to make a contribution. But we didn’t have a structured view of how to make that contribution into a second career,” Ms. Louie says. Now, she and Mr. Hurst are each working on projects for the group that could extend beyond their one-year commitments.

Of course, getting people to volunteer their time when they’re trying to find employment can be difficult. But the government efforts could provide the bridge from first careers to later-life careers that many people are seeking, says Stan Litow, vice president of corporate citizenship for International Business Machines Corp., Armonk, N.Y. He heads three programs helping the company’s workers make transitions into second careers in teaching, public service and voluntary service.

“There’s lots of opportunity for people with technology and management skills. Despite the difficult economic times, there are serious shortages for things like patent examiners and a variety of jobs in federal agencies,” Mr. Litow says.

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AmeriCorps, Bridgespan Group, Civic Ventures