Baby boomers go back to college: Richland College is at the forefront in programs that retrain older workers and retirees for new careers

(Dallas Morning News, The) Jan. 3–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, Ms. Hoes is a pharmacy technician at Parkland Memorial Hospital, filling prescriptions and waiting on customers.

“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 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 the U.S. economy will face shortages of 6 million workers by 2012 and 35 million workers 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 think tank that’s helping people reinvent themselves in the second half of life.

Community colleges have typically been nimble at adapting their curriculum to new workforce 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,” Ms. 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 seniors and has since grown to more than 4,000 enrollments in daytime classes that teach everything from computer skills to genealogy.

Now the school will launch its Boomer Reboot program in January, with evening classes that will teach boomers how to look for a job, plan for retirement, care for aging parents and manage their own 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.

Richland will offer 17 courses specifically for boomers in this first year.

Career counselor Jill Waterbury, for example, will tell boomers returning to the job market how to write a resume that emphasizes their experience rather than age and how they should field interview questions.

“On resumes, I recommend going back only 15 years,” she said. “That’s not a deception — it’s a way to get you in the door.”

Retirement planning

The new retirement-planning course has been tailor-made for boomers who say they haven’t saved enough, Ms. Werther said. Almost half of that generation worry they will outlive their money.

Certified financial planner Dave Bell will lead students through a do-it-yourself exercise designed to analyze their personal finances and answer whether they’ll be able to enjoy retirement.

“At the end of the six sessions, you’ll know enough to do your own financial planning,” he said.

Geriatric care manager Kay Paggi will coach boomers on how to juggle their jobs with their caregiving. One in six workers cares for an older relative. Stressed out, one in five caregivers quits working or looks for a less-demanding job.

“Parents often live out of state, so the caregiving may turn out to be long distance,” she said. “We’ll sort through the logistics.”

Rebooting

The Boomer Reboot courses start Jan. 22 and cost from $12 to $40. The yearlong certification programs run about $3,000.

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