Categorized | Finance & Work

Boomers turn to college to boost job skills

Students, mature, older, school, education,

By Encarnacion Pylecolumbus


Steve Newman never expected to be going back to college in his 50s to train for a new job.

But the 51-year-old also never expected to get laid off three years ago after 25 years as a civil engineer.

“Fortunately, my wife and I had been making provisions for an undefined emergency since the middle of the previous summer, so we were not without resources,” Newman said.

With high unemployment, low home values and downsized retirement accounts, hundreds of thousands of baby boomers are turning to college to boost their job skills. The number of students ages 50 to 64 increased 17 percent nationwide between fall 2007 and fall 2009, according to the latest data available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The growth has been even more dramatic at Columbus State Community College. The number of students age 50 and older increased more than 81 percent, to 1,506 students, between fall 2007 and fall last year. That age group is the fastest growing population at the school.

“It used to be that many older adults came to college to help pass the time during their retirement and to enrich their lives,” said Chandra Bell, a counselor and career-assistance coordinator at Columbus State. But people are now coming back “because they have lost their jobs, need new skills to keep their jobs or are planning a new career because they can’t afford to retire as planned,” Bell said.

With 78 million baby boomers entering their retirement years, the country needs more of these experienced workers to stay in the workforce longer, even in part-time positions, officials said.

“Keeping older workers engaged in the labor force is vital for the continued economic growth of our region,” said Bill LaFayette, a Columbus economist and owner of the consulting firm Regionomics.

The labor force growth rate has already been declining and is projected to slow to a crawl between 2020 and 2025 because of the exodus of baby boomers, he said.

With people living longer, healthier lives, there is also a new demand for programs designed to train the over-50 population, said Celia Crossley, a career strategist and managing partner of Crosworks.

Last year, about 36 percent of workers said they expected to keep working past age 65, compared with 20 percent in 2001, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).

“It’s a different world today where 50 to 70 is considered the new ‘middle age,’ ” Crossley said.

Martha Harrison, 52, of Powell started playing with the idea of going back to college in 2005 after more than 20 years as a preschool teacher. She was motivated by two primary factors: money and a desire to get a counseling degree to help children deal with their increasingly complicated home lives.

“Preschool teachers barely make above minimum wage, which makes no sense when you think about taking care of someone’s most-valuable asset,” Harrison said.

She tried a few online psychology classes with a for-profit college in 2005 but didn’t really get started on her education until she enrolled at Columbus State’s Delaware campus in fall 2010. Harrison has enjoyed school so much she wants to transfer to Ohio State to work on a bachelor’s degree and eventually earn a master’s so she can become a school counselor. She isn’t daunted by her age.

“The way I look at it, people my age, we have maybe 25 or more years left of working in us, especially in something that we enjoy,” she said.

When Newman lost his job, he and his wife, Deb, who is a stay-at-home mom, had saved about half of what they thought they might need to sustain themselves for about six months with no other income.

“We were glad to have made such decisions, despite not having had time to complete our preparation,” he said.

Through friends, Newman immediately landed a job as a marketing director for a men’s legwear company in Granville. He took a job 11 months later as a traffic engineer for the Ohio Department of Transportation.

But neither worked out long term. So the father of four signed up for a free three-week program at Columbus State that was created to train dislocated workers in logistics — the movement and storage of goods from the beginning to the end of a supply chain.

After the training, Newman got a job as an inventory specialist at ODW Logistics Inc. in Columbus. He then enrolled in a three-quarter-long online certificate program at Columbus State, which helped him move to a more-advanced job at the pharmaceutical company of Boehringer Ingelheim Roxane Inc.

Even though Newman had earned a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State in 1984, going back to college was challenging, he said.

“In the past 13 days, I’ve had to read seven chapters, take nine quizzes, solve four sets of problems, take one midterm and two finals — and that doesn’t even count working 40 hours and spending time with my family.”

Newman is just thankful for a second chance, even though he’s making $60,000 a year less than his peak salary as a civil engineer. He’s also looking forward to working his way up in what he hopes turns out to be a long, successful second career.

“Getting laid off was quite a blow,” he said. “But finding something else to go after and making strides to move ahead has me feeling good again.” — AP

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