Savvy Schools

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal
April 17,2009

Ted English, age 62, a restaurant owner in Rapid City, S.D., had been thinking about changing careers, perhaps taking a job in travel or tourism. Last winter, a local community college opened a door.

The school, Western Dakota Technical Institute, had developed a program to train older adults to work as interpretive rangers in national parks. The course included visits to Mount Rushmore and several other sites. Mr. English quickly signed up. “Being a history buff, this is great,” he says.

The humble community college is turning out to be one of the best resources for older adults seeking new directions — and new jobs — in later life. From coast to coast, two-year public institutions are streamlining existing training programs and designing new ones to help people approaching retirement or facing midlife layoffs. Among the programs created so far: vocational counseling, accelerated certification in health and education specialties, and help with small-business start-ups.

“People can be kind of snooty about community colleges, [but] they are flexible and ready to go,” says Judy Goggin, a vice president of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco nonprofit that works to redirect individuals age 50-plus into service-oriented careers. She directs the nonprofit’s Community College Encore Career Program, which is funded by the MetLife Foundation. “With traditional four-year colleges, it’s, ‘Come and do what we’ve got,’ ” Ms. Goggin says. “At community colleges, the tuition is lower, they’re more accessible, and they are adapting to where the jobs really are.”

Indeed, Civic Ventures and others — seeing the benefits in community colleges — are steering dollars in their direction. In 2007, Civic Ventures awarded 10 grants of $25,000 each to community colleges developing programs for older adults. (Roughly 10% of the nation’s 1,125 community colleges applied for the grants.) Civic Ventures plans to award eight additional grants in June.

Last year, the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C., started a three-year Plus 50 Initiative with 10 demonstration programs for older students, funded with $3.2 million from Atlantic Philanthropies, a New York foundation focused in part on civic engagement of older adults.

“Unfortunately, there are few ways for older adults to pursue ‘encore careers,’ through which they can share their knowledge and skill with others and find purpose and fulfillment for themselves,” says Laura Robbins, head of Atlantic Philanthropies’ U.S. Program on Aging. “Community colleges, which help young people fulfill their dreams, are the perfect places to help older adults achieve theirs.”

Park Service
In Rapid City, Kim Morey, an administrator at Western Dakota Technical, sought out a Plus 50 grant last year to work with the National Park Service, which has “trouble finding interpretive park rangers for the crush of tourists from Memorial Day through Labor Day,” he says. Mr. Morey also realized that many seasonal rangers “are boomers at the end of a career or in a second career.”

He and educational staff from four nearby national parks quickly put together a training course that started in January with a full-day class, followed by four site visits — to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The course ended in March with a class in which the 10 students made educational presentations as if they were interpretive rangers. The class cost $349. Financial aid is available, Mr. Morey says.

By starting the class in winter, the students could apply in time for summer jobs. Although the work is seasonal, it pays “in the low teens per hour,” Mr. Morey says.

In other programs, students get most of their instruction online. Older students who haven’t yet retired, or who are taking care of family, do much of the work at home. Jan Albert, 55, last year earned a gerontology certificate from Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley, Calif., mainly online, while caring for her parents, who have Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Ms. Albert, who lost her job as an event planner at a real-estate company in 2007, says at first she was intimidated about taking online classes and posting answers to assignments in a public forum. But as she started reading her classmates’ answers, “I realized, my gosh, I might occasionally miss a beat, but I have so much experience to draw on in my homework.” She finished her certificate last year, after 40 hours of field work at a small assisted-living home, with a 4.0 grade-point average.

In January, Ms. Albert and her sister started a business to provide the same type of nonmedical care they were giving their parents. They named their company 24 Hour Angels. Before launching the business, they took a five-day, on-campus seminar at Coastline designed to help older adults learn about careers in gerontology, such as social work and long-term care.

Buyout Fallout
Small-business development and technology centers, often housed at community colleges, are gearing up to work with increasing numbers of older entrepreneurs. The center affiliated with Washtenaw Community College in Ypsilanti, Mich., near Detroit and ground zero of the auto-industry layoffs, takes on “a regular flow of people getting a buyout who have $100,0000 burning a hole in their pocket who want to start a business,” says director Charles Penner. “Some of them can be very successful, and others less so, so we really wanted to reach out to that group,” Mr. Penner says.

Washtenaw’s center has started one-day workshops focused on older adults looking for new careers. What resonated most with 50 participants at the first daylong meeting last year were stories from individuals who decided to start businesses in later life, Mr. Penner says.

“We had a panel of people who [are now working] as nonprofit executives, social workers and health-care workers,” he says. “We take the approach that encore careers will be entrepreneurial whether or not you’re an entrepreneur,” because each requires that the job seeker seize the initiative.

Another program, fast-track teaching certification, is spreading quickly through community colleges around the country. For example, Collin College in suburban Dallas last year started enabling older students with math or science expertise to earn their classroom certificates in just two semesters. The program, which costs $2,600, now is adding other content areas.

The school already had a teacher-certification program on nights and weekends, but it used a grant to start a daytime program. In the fall, students take classes three days a week from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; in the spring, they do their student teaching. Everyone in the class that ended last May got a job, says Sabrina Belt, director of Collin College’s teacher-certification program. “It’s so neat to work with this population because they come from different backgrounds, but they have the same goal in mind,” she says. “They want to have a purpose and feel like they’re making a difference.”

Math Wiz
Julie Greene, 49, quit working nine years ago, after having a child and moving to Dallas from New York, where she was a marketing executive. She has a master’s degree in business administration and already had taken several math classes at Collin College with the thought of eventually becoming a teacher. Then she learned about the daytime program.

“I pretty much have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in math already, if not a little more,” she says. “I didn’t need the peripheral classes. I just needed the real stuff. The alternative-certification program had no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts learning how to be a good teacher. I feel like I got what I needed and didn’t get what I didn’t need.”

Ms. Greene became a student-teacher in January 2008 for 12 weeks, and finished out the school year as a substitute for a high-school math teacher on maternity leave. The same school hired her back in August. “It’s really great,” she says. “I like being around the teenagers. And when someone asks, ‘Why do I need to know this?’ I feel like I have enough experience behind me to be believable.”