Flores realized she had to not only ramp up her skills — "I barely knew how to turn on a computer" — but acquire new ones. Homing in on Flores's desire to help people, a career counselor at Joliet Junior College (JJC) enrolled her in JJC's Plus 50 program, designed to retrain older workers. Flores took computer classes and completed an eight-week Alzheimer's at Home course to care for those with dementia. While at JJC, she also volunteered with Catholic Charities as a senior companion. That led first to part-time work at a local assisted living facility, then as a full-time private caregiver.
Using input from local employers, community colleges are able to design certificate programs to train workers who meet these companies' unique needs. With more than 450 bio science businesses in northeast Ohio, Cleveland's Cuyahoga Community College, for example, offers job-skill development programs in the manufacturing of medical devices or pharmaceutical drugs. Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan, partners with CVS/Pharmacy stores to provide on-the-job experience as part of Maccomb's pharmacy-technician certification.
Other schools, such as GateWay Community College in Phoenix, Arizona, train job-seeking boomers for work at area nonprofits and government agencies. EducateVA, offered by the Virginia Community College System, allows individuals with bachelor's degrees to become provisionally licensed in 16 weeks to teach math or science in middle schools and high schools. "Traditional teaching programs typically take a minimum of two years," says Rebecca Waters, one of the program's developers. "Not only do we fast-track, but it costs students only about $4,000." EducateVA boasts an almost 80 percent placement rate, with entry-level teacher's salaries averaging $42,000.
The boomer + community college + retraining = jobs equation is as much a win for employers as it is for new employees. Before teaming with Nicolet College, HyPro's plant manager, Mike Sutton, struggled to fill critical positions. "Rhinelander is more of a vacation destination, and even during the recession, when our company was going through a growth spurt, we were lucky to find even one skilled worker a year," he says.
In early 2010, HyPro joined with 12 other manufacturing businesses to develop a curriculum at Nicolet, going so far as to provide instructors and opening their facilities for site visits. "We each pledged that if someone graduated from the Manufacturing Fundamentals program, we would interview them," Sutton says. So far, HyPro has hired six graduates.
Although community colleges can help land you a job in as little as four weeks, many of those positions pay barely a few bucks more than minimum wage. Those that pay better require more class time and, perhaps, more money out of your pocket. One strategy, says Holstein, is to enroll in a relatively quick and inexpensive program just to get a new job, then continue to study at night or on weekends to qualify for a higher-paying position.
That's the plan for both Flores and Kieffer. "If it wasn't for JJC, I wouldn't have gotten my job," says Flores, who hopes to continue her schooling to become a certified nursing assistant. "They taught me you are never too old to go back to school." Kieffer has his eye on more advanced Nicolet programs, including the Manufacturing Essentials certificate, so he can move up the HyPro ladder. "I've had so many jobs in so many places," he says. "Hopefully this will be the last place I work. That would be sweet!"
Laura Daily is a contributing editor for AARP The Magazine.