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Boomers Go Back in Search of Healthcare Career

Boomers Go Back in Search of Healthcare Career

At age 51, Leigh Hoes has a new career as a pharmacy technician at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. She received training for the job at a community college.

Community colleges help midlife students retool

DALLAS — Downsized and depressed, Leigh Hoes was approaching 50 and wondering what to do with the rest of her work life.

Then one day, as she leafed through a course catalog that had arrived in the mail from Richland College in Dallas, the idea came to her.

Why not work in a pharmacy, dispensing prescriptions?

After all, she thought, a health-care career had always appealed to her, the job was fairly recession-proof, and she could train for it in just one year.

Like many other baby boomers, the food-technology specialist turned to a community college for help in changing careers. She enrolled in one of Richland’s health professions certificate programs.

Today, at 51, Hoes is a pharmacy technician at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

“I’ve found my niche,” she said. “I see myself working in health care into my 60s and maybe 70s.”

Four in five boomers have told pollsters that they intend to work past their traditional retirement age, and many want to find new jobs with a higher social purpose and more flexible hours.

Labor analysts, meanwhile, predict that the U.S. economy will face shortages of 6 million workers by 2012 and 35 million by 2030. The hardest-hit fields will be education, health care and public service.

“The two trends present a historic opportunity for community colleges,” said Judy Goggin, a vice president for Civic Ventures, a research organization that’s helping people reinvent themselves in the second half of their lives.

Community colleges typically have been nimble at adapting their curriculum to new work-force demands, she said.

“The time’s right for developing programs for boomers trying to launch the next phase of their working lives and for employers faced with a brain drain over the next couple of decades,” Goggin said.

One community college that educators say is emerging as a national model for catering to boomer students is Richland, which is part of the Dallas County Community College District.

“Richland was among the first to reach out to retirees and is now in the vanguard of schools helping students in midlife,” said Norma Kent, an executive with the American Association of Community Colleges.

The college’s Emeritus program for retirees began in 1989 with 150 senior citizens and has since grown to more than 4,000 enrollments in daytime classes that teach everything from computer skills to genealogy.

This month, the school began its Boomer Reboot program, with evening classes that teach boomers how to look for a job, plan for retirement, care for aging parents and manage stress.

The new classes are in addition to Richland’s current health-professions and teacher-certification programs, which each year attract dozens of midlife students wanting to switch careers.

“We realize that boomers aren’t the same as their parents, so we’ve built a curriculum around their biggest concerns,” said Mitzi Werther, director of the college’s Emeritus and Boomer Reboot programs.

About 1,400 of Richland’s 15,000 students are ages 40 to 60, and college officials say they hope that number will rise as the school offers more boomer-oriented courses and steps up its marketing.

The median age for a community college student is now 28.

Only about 30 community colleges nationwide have programs aimed at students 50 or older, and most are for retirees rather than boomers, Kent said.

The association recently received a $3.2 million grant from the Atlantic Philanthropies to spur the development of more boomer programs at 15 yet-to-be-named colleges across the country.

The group’s boomer initiative dovetails with a similar partnership between Civic Ventures and the MetLife Foundation to prepare midlife students for second careers in education, health care and social services.

Goggin, of Civic Ventures, said boomers who enroll in community college programs expect a “clear path to employment” after graduation.

“They don’t want to jump through a lot of hoops,” she said.

Jan Parrish, Richland’s associate dean for health professions, said the college’s 10 health-care certificate programs are especially popular because graduates usually end up with several job offers.

While Hoes became a pharmacy technician, other graduates decide to work in medical offices, prepare patients for exams, schedule appointments, draw blood or process insurance claims.

“They’re jobs that won’t be sent offshore,” Parrish said. “For someone who’s been downsized once or twice, that’s comforting to know.”

Community colleges also could play a big role in teaching boomers to be community volunteers, Kent said.

“Not everyone will need to work. Many will look for opportunities to serve their communities,” she said. “Community colleges are in a good position to match boomers with volunteer activities.”

AARP recently singled out Richland for its Conversation Partners program as a model for volunteerism. Each year, 500 seniors in the Emeritus program volunteer to help foreign-born students improve their language skills.

“They just sit down and visit, but the casual conversation works wonders,” Werther said.

Richland plans to extend the program to boomer volunteers this spring.

“The moment for community colleges is now,” Kent said. “They’re the logical place to help boomers find new purpose in life.”

“The time’s right for developing programs for boomers trying to launch the next phase of their working lives.”

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