Boomers turn to community colleges to launch new careers

April 28, 2009 | By Bob Moos

Like many midlife workers hit hard by the recession, Cynthia Stafford's survival strategy has been to enroll at her community college to pursue a more marketable career.

The former mortgage company employee plans to graduate from Collin College's culinary arts program by fall and land a chef's job in the hotel banquet business.

"I'm turning my passion for food into my next career," the Prosper resident said. "I want to make dinner for 300 people and hear everyone rave about how great the meal is."

Community colleges have long had the mission of training the workforce's next generation. But as the ranks of the unemployed swell in this recession, the schools are seeing more students in their 40s, 50s and 60s seeking new job skills and new careers.

In Collin County, enrollment among students older than 41 has increased 16 percent from a year ago in noncredit courses and 14 percent in credit classes. In the Dallas County Community College District, it's up 17 percent in noncredit courses and 4 percent in credit classes.

Laid-off boomers

"Boomers who have been laid off after decades-long careers are looking to community colleges to help them figure out what they can do next," said Mary Sue Vickers, director of the American Association of Community Colleges' national initiative to expand programs for students older than 50.

Many midlife workers want either advice to guide their job searches or short-term certificate programs that retrain them for fields with openings, she said.

Collin College in Collin County and the Richland College baby boomer program in Dallas both offer single-session or short courses that teach students to assess their skills, identify prospective employers, write a persuasive résumé and make a strong impression in a job interview.

The two community colleges have been nationally recognized for their innovative programs to help midlife workers.

Pam Venne, a career coach who teaches at Richland, said all of the students in her most recent class on choosing a second career had been downsized or were expecting it.

"Some came to the first class with no idea of what they wanted to do. Others had some options in mind but hadn't narrowed them," she said. "But by the end of the course, most had pretty much decided on a direction."

Yvonne Ortiz, 52, a single Dallas mother who recently lost her bookkeeping job, said Venne's class restored her self-confidence and convinced her that she should pursue a college degree.

She plans to major in business administration in fall and hopes her education will make her less vulnerable to layoffs in a future economic downturn.

"I know it's going to be hard, but the class gave me the motivation," Ortiz said.

Boomers returning to campus after decades may find it daunting, so Richland College and other community colleges have tried to ease the re-entry.

Teresa Love, who oversees Richland's boomers program, said she devotes a good part of her time to counseling midlife students who may not be as savvy about registering for courses or applying for financial assistance as younger students are.

"Many haven't been students for years, so some need the personal touch," she said.

Testing for direction

People considering a change of careers sometimes take a battery of tests at a community college counseling center to evaluate their interests and strengths, said Lydia Gober, director of career services at Collin College.

Melody Ball, 54, of Dallas left the real estate business about a year ago when the market began to sour. As part of her self-evaluation, she went through the series of assessments at Collin College. Those tests confirmed her interest in communications.

She now coaches immigrant physicians and business executives on shedding their foreign accents so that patients, clients and colleagues can better understand them.

"I'm thrilled with my midlife reinvention," she said. "I took my background in linguistics and transformed it into a career that's in demand in the global economy."

Community colleges are responding to the wave of laid-off midlife students by offering accelerated programs that prepare them for new careers in as little as a year.

Particularly popular at the moment are health care programs that train students to become caregivers, medical transcribers, pharmacy technicians and radiologists, she said.

Many midlife students are also taking computer courses to beef up their résumés.

Collin College has had 900 people express interest in its teacher preparation programs this year, about twice the number from a year ago, said Sabrina Belt, director of the Center for Teaching, Learning and Professional Development.

Fast-track changes

The college developed a fast-track program that allows students with bachelor's degrees to become math teachers in one year instead of the typical two, she said.

The culinary arts program has made chefs out of police officers, graphic artists and telecommunications workers, said program chair Karen Musa.

The streamlined certificate program usually takes one year to complete. A degree requires at least two.

Boomers changing careers are looking for flexible class times that can accommodate their current jobs and their family obligations, community college officials say.

Students who take a full load of courses through Collin's Weekend College attend Friday evenings, Saturdays and Sunday afternoons and receive a degree in two years. Others can concentrate on completing a single course over several weekends.

"Eighty percent of our students continue to work, so these weekend schedules are perfectly tailored to their needs, said Collin College President Cary Israel.

For culinary arts student Stafford, the second time around has indeed been a charm. At 44, she's 20 years older than many of her fellow students and, she says, 20 years wiser.

"When I returned to school, I thought it would be a lot like when I was 19," she said. "But I found that I value learning much more than I once did. Maybe it's because I now understand that life's not going to just give me a better ticket. I've got to grab it myself."