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Skills to Learn to Restart Earnings

Resource type: News

The New York Times |

Original Source


JUSTIN WILLIAMS worked as an engineer at Honeywell International for 31 years, and when he retired last April, he knew he could not afford to stop working. His home in suburban Maryland, on which he had spent his 401(k) savings, was losing value, and his pension did not replace enough of his former income.

Mr. Williams, 65, took stock. He did not want another job in engineering. In past years he had volunteered in public schools, helping young children learn reading and math.

Then he did what increasing numbers of older Americans are doing, especially as the economy sours — he enrolled in community college.

“I realized there was a need for educators,” in large part because so many teachers are retiring, he said of his choice, an accelerated program in early education at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md. “I saw things I could do as well or better.”

The impact of the economic and stock market declines on retirees and workers about to retire has been especially pronounced. While younger workers have time to recover some of their losses, many older workers and retirees have to follow Mr. Williams’s example and remake themselves for the job market.

In many cases, they find that their skills, experience and contacts are not enough. So they send themselves off to community colleges or training programs, where they are often surrounded by people far younger, and they have no realistic expectation that whatever new job they might find will produce income comparable to their previous one. In all, it’s daunting.

“Major professionals we’re seeing are going back to work for lower salaries” and often downplaying their accomplishments on their résumés, said Margo Brewer, senior educational director at National Able Network, a nonprofit counseling, placement and training service based in Chicago that receives public and private financing. “The upper-income jobs just are not as available as they once were. And a lot of companies are hesitant to hire full-time staff,” so they are instead creating temporary jobs.

Many community colleges have started to cater to older people, offering incentives that include free tax preparation and valet parking, said Susan Porter Robinson, vice president of lifelong learning at the American Council on Education. Often employers in an area work with community colleges to develop curriculums geared toward actual job needs, sometimes providing scholarships or promises of jobs after graduation.

Coursework tends to be focused and practical, and tuition well below that of universities, Ms. Robinson said.

“Older adults tell us they’re interested in certificate training that will be quick,” she said. “They don’t have two years. What they may be missing are what I call skill-ettes. Right now there’s pressing needs for people in fields like teaching and the health sciences, so that’s where a lot of the classes are.”

The hot fields for older workers are the same as those for younger ones: health care, alternative energy and education, and the economic stimulus program is expected to create jobs with the federal government, said Charlene M. Dukes, president of Prince George’s Community College.

Both employers and schools are recognizing older workers as an untapped resource, said Laura A. Robbins, director of the program on aging in the United States for the Atlantic Philanthropies, which provides grant money to community colleges and other programs for retraining workers over age 50. “You can get community colleges, universities, volunteer networks and employment agencies all in a unified network like a wheel with spokes. But I can’t tell you that there’s a silver bullet right now.”

Like others interviewed for this article, Dr. Dukes said available job opportunities were clustered around the national median household income of $51,000. The school discourages six-figure expectations, she said.

“There’s not currently a lot of pathways to help older adults go to the next thing,” Ms. Robbins said. “It’s not just a short-term emergency problem.”

For Mr. Williams, the path began at a friend’s birthday party, where he learned that the community college provided nearly free tuition to students over age 60 and that it had a one-year program leading to an associate’s degree in early education.

Now back in school, Mr. Williams and his wife, Cookie, are providing day care in their home, which they hope to expand to a day care center and eventually a private school.

“I enjoy going back to school more than I did in the early days,” he said. “It’s a pleasure, though I’m usually the oldest person in the class.”

He said he was happy to be active and building a business — one not at all related to his previous professional experience. “I never saw retirement as laying back on a beach,” he said. “It can’t replace the money I made at Honeywell, but my lifestyle is such that I don’t need to replace it all.”

For job-seekers of any age, the market is tight but not impossible, said Ms. Brewer of National Able Network. “It appears there are jobs everywhere but in limited numbers,” she said. “It’s a matter of matching skills.”

One retiree who came through Ms. Brewer’s program is Rae Lynn Schneider, 61, of Chicago.

Ms. Schneider taught in Chicago’s public schools for 34 years and retired in 2003 with full benefits. She thought her pension and savings would provide enough for her to live comfortably, including travel overseas. But now her annuity no longer looks certain because it’s invested in the stock market.

She did not want another teaching job, in part because she wanted to work close to her home, so she took an eight-week class in basic computer skills and earned a certificate in customer service.

With that in hand, Ms. Schneider found a seasonal job at an American Girl store near her home, and she discovered that her skills as a teacher transferred well to retail: she was used to being on her feet, she was a good communicator and comfortable speaking in public, and she was punctual and orderly.

“In this job market, I said, ‘How am I going to get in?’ ” she said. On the advice of friends and job counselors, she dyed her gray hair blond.

She said the training she got at National Able Network gave her self-confidence, as well as contacts.

“The group I was in really bonded, just in studying the material, which was not easy,” she said. “It was mostly women in their late 50s and early 60s. We have similar problems.”

Ms. Schneider’s job ended in January, but she is hoping to be rehired this summer. Though the income is below what she earned as a teacher, it is a welcome supplement to her pension, she said. And when the economy recovers, she may be in a good position to earn more, she said.

Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said he did not recommend retraining for workers who had successful careers. Instead, he suggested that they consider part-time or contract work in their fields, where they can use their experience and skills to their advantage.

“If someone has I.T. experience but they haven’t programmed in a while, it might make sense to take a couple classes,” he said. “Or if a C.P.A. has mainly been in management, he could go back and get his accounting skills up to date. But if you’re an accounting guy and you want to go to school to learn marketing, then you’re not making use of the skills you acquired over the years. You’re going to be competing in the job market without a competitive advantage.”

The good news for older workers, he said, is that they may be more flexible about taking part-time or seasonal work, unless they have to replace a large income. In surveys, older workers and retirees say they want jobs without the time demands or pressures of their old career tracks.

“Until the economy is strong, companies are not going to be looking for full-time workers,” Professor Cappelli said. “Project work or contingent work often suits older workers. If you want benefits, I’m not sure how great that is. But temp work generally pays 30 to 40 percent more per hour than full-time work.”

For Sally Stevens and Mark Noonan, who both live in Portland, Ore., pursuing their old career fields was not an attractive option. Ms. Stevens, 58, was a social worker specializing in outpatient alcohol and drug treatment when methamphetamine hit.

“I didn’t think that worked as outpatient treatment, so I felt totally unsuccessful,” she said.

Mr. Noonan, 56, worked as a technology manager, a job that consumed 60 hours a week and demanded he be available by BlackBerry at all hours. Through Life by Design, an Oregon program that offers training workshops sponsored by a consortium of institutions — a community college, a university, nonprofit groups, an employment agency, AARP and several public agencies — Mr. Noonan and Ms. Stevens decided to train for new careers: in gerontology.

“I decided gerontology was a real growth career,” Mr. Noonan said. “It reminded me of when I first got into high tech.”

Both he and Ms. Stevens enrolled in Life by Design through Portland Community College, which, like many community colleges, offered an online degree program, relieving Mr. Noonan’s fear of being stuck in a roomful of 20-year-olds. Ms. Stevens chose more traditional classroom courses, but with supplementary peer mentoring and online study groups.

“I had a snobbish attitude about community colleges,” she said. “I thought that’s where people go who don’t have much intellectual ability. It’s not that way anymore.”

Now Ms. Stevens works as a case manager for older adults. Mr. Noonan designs programs for Elders in Action, a nonprofit advocacy group in Portland. Both took significant hits in their earnings but said they expected greater opportunities in a few years. “The hardest part was that I was used to knowing my job,” Ms. Stevens said. “I had to go back as a newbie, having to ask questions of someone who’s 24. It’s good for me, though. It humbles you.”

Even when older workers need the money, many say they are more concerned about the value of their work, said Pamela Tate, president of the Council for Adults and Experiential Learning, a nonprofit group in Chicago.

“What they need to do is pay more attention to what would make them feel interested and like they were making a contribution, rather than old-fashioned career advancement,” she said. “That’s a young person’s approach. Now you need to think, ‘what are you giving back to society or your company?’ It’s a shift from personal ambition to social ambition.”

For Faye Milbourne, training for a second career meant realizing, “I don’t need the attaboys and the kudos I needed when I was a career person,” she said.

Mrs. Milbourne, 57, previously worked for the company that became Verizon — “31 years, 2 months and 24 days,” she said — before taking an early retirement package in 2006. While at the company, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in urban education. She had no plans to kick back in retirement.

“A friend said, ‘You need to learn to do something you would do for free,’ ” Mrs. Milbourne said. So she enrolled in Career Switcher Programs at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and Regent University in Virginia Beach designed to bring people from various fields into the teaching profession. Now she is a permanent substitute teacher in Virginia Beach, working for a fraction of her old salary.

Though her retirement funds have taken “a half-million downslide” in the last year, she said she was still secure financially and found the work more rewarding than her past career. “For the first time in my life I feel I’m doing something I love to be doing,” she said.

Yet even this career is threatened by the economy, she said. She hopes to find placement as a student teacher in the fall, then advance to a full-time teaching job. But many school districts, including hers, have been forced to cut back.

“If that doesn’t happen, I’ll continue to substitute,” she said. “And if nothing else, I can always be a mentor.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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