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Kick-Start Your Career

Consider these not-so-common paths to new beginnings

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Ready for a career change? Consider enrolling in a certificate program at your local community college to gain expertise in a new field.

You've spent 25 years or longer in the workforce, and now you feel you're just treading water. You know it's time to kick-start your career, but you aren't sure how to do it.

Many older workers are discovering a second act in their working lives and finding creative ways to build careers around their passions. You can, too. Here are a few untraditional ways to do it.

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Certificate programs

Available at community colleges, for-profit schools and even elite universities such as Harvard, certificate programs are fast becoming a way for workers to jump-start careers. "They now outnumber bachelor's degrees," says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The programs, which are designed to give you expertise in a specific subject, run the gamut from medical assistant, data science and fundraising to museum studies and craft brewing. Classes often can be completed within a few months to two years. Tuition can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the school and certificate.

Octavio Espinosa, 56, had been a research scientist in the biotech industry in San Diego for nearly 25 years before he decided to follow the "spark that kicked in when I was able to join my business and sales marketing colleagues."

He invested about $5,000 for a nine-course marketing certificate program, which he credits with helping him reinvent his career. Today he is vice president of sales and marketing for a lab equipment company. "It has paid for itself many times over," he says.

For Lily Cheng, 55, a certificate was a way to reenter the workforce after 19 years as a stay-at-home parent in Philadelphia. She received a certificate in medical coding and landed a job before her two-month program was over.

"I wish I had done it sooner. I just didn't have the confidence," she says. "The longer I stayed out of the workforce, the harder it became."

Before enrolling in a program, do your homework. Don't invest time and money if there is little chance of a job at the end. Start with some online research at to discover the demand in your community for the career you're considering, says Paul McDonald, senior executive director with the recruiting firm Robert Half in Menlo Park, Calif. Talk to a recruiter about job prospects.

Check out the school. Does it have a good reputation? Do the instructors practice in the industry, bringing real-world experience to the classroom as well as networking opportunities? Is there placement help after certification? Find out what happened to former students in the program. Are they working in the field for which they were trained? For more information on certificates and other career possibilities, go to LearningAdvisor, an online resource created by AARP's Life Reimagined and Kaplan, a provider of education and career services.


These learn-and-earn jobs are enjoying a revival in the United States. Apprenticeships run two to four years, with workers often spending four days a week on the job and one day in classes. Pay is 40 to 60 percent of what a fully skilled professional earns. At the end, apprentices leave with a credential certifying their skills and usually a permanent job with the employer.

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Some employers adding apprenticeships are based in Europe — where such training programs never went out of style — and are bringing them to their U.S. operations. That includes Siemens, an electrical engineering company based in Germany, and the Bühler Group, a Swiss technology company.

The Obama administration last year set a goal to increase the number of registered apprenticeships here to 750,000 over five years — up from the current 421,000. About 6 percent of apprentices whose programs are registered with the Department of Labor are 50 and older.

Among U.S. companies committed to expanding apprenticeships, CVS plans to double its apprentices by adding 1,500 over five years, while UPS has pledged to create 2,000 driver apprenticeships by 2018. The Campbell Soup Co. expects to apprentice more than 4,000 employees in the next three years.

The majority of apprenticeships remain in the building and manufacturing trades, but they are spreading to health care, insurance and information technology. BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, for instance, has hired hundreds of IT apprentices. And Zurich Insurance Group of Switzerland is developing apprenticeships in claims and underwriting at its U.S. offices.

Marcia Nelson, of Columbia, S.C., entered BlueCross' IT project management apprenticeship several years ago. It gave her the opportunity to advance, boost her pay and grow professionally, says Nelson, who had been working in accounting for BlueCross. "I'm always out there looking for the next opportunity," she says. "What should I be doing next?"

Many of Nelson's fellow apprentices were younger, she says, but her entry into the program encouraged her peers to enroll later. "New beginnings don't just start at college graduation," she says. "They can start at 40, they can start at 50."

Check the Department of Labor's website for apprenticeships in your area.

Be your own boss

People age 45 and older are launching businesses at a greater pace than their younger counterparts, reports the Kauffmann Foundation, which focuses on entrepreneurship.

This growth in older entrepreneurs began during the Great Recession, when layoffs jumped and seasoned workers couldn't find jobs, says Elizabeth Isele, founder of Senior Entrepreneurship Works, an education and advocacy nonprofit.

Lynn Zuckerman Gray, 66, is one of them. She lost her senior administrative position at Lehman Brothers after the financial firm imploded in 2008. One of her favorite parts of that job had been recruiting new grads for Lehman's real estate division. Figuring that other firms also were laying off their in-house recruiters, Gray "sensed a niche."

She took a crash course in entrepreneurship and, six months after losing her Wall Street job, opened Campus Scout out of her New York apartment. The company recruits job candidates on college campuses for clients, mostly financial-services firms. She financed Campus Scout out of pocket, and it turned profitable after a couple of years. "This is the biggest risk I have taken in my life," she says, adding that she's never been happier.

Examples of successful older entrepreneurs are encouraging others to try running their own business, Isele says. Despite this high level of interest, be aware that about half of start-ups fail. Isele offers these three tips for success:

Choose something you can be passionate about, because a start-up will eat up your time and energy.

Embrace the Internet, which has so much helpful information for free, such as accounting principles and how to build a website.

Don't risk long-term security by tapping your 401(k) or other retirement accounts to finance the business. Instead, use a personal loan or an extension of credit, or raise small sums through online crowdfunding. And don't borrow more than you need.

Access to capital is not the biggest hurdle for older entrepreneurs, Isele says. "Their biggest challenge is having confidence that they can do this."

Build a better mousetrap

You may be able to invent a new career for yourself. The United Inventors Association says that at least 60 percent of its members are 50 and older.

No need to spend lots of money or years getting your concept to market, either. You can pitch inventions to companies, such as Edison Nation, that help get the product on retailers' shelves. Edison Nation charges $25 to submit an idea online for review. If it gets the thumbs-up, Edison will license and manufacture the product or find a retail partner to do so. In return, inventors can receive as much as 7.5 percent of sales, minus expenses. Eric Huber, 50, of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., sees inventing as part of his retirement plan. Huber, who designs playgrounds for a living, has created 120 inventions.

"Some people like to crochet or do quilting. I come up with ideas. That's just my hobby," he says. Helping his daughter move, for instance, inspired him to design a line of apartment furniture that can fit in the back of a car—no tools required.

Some of his ideas have been picked up by Edison and others, but no blockbuster yet. His biggest commercial success: the Flex & Protect tarp, which can bend and cling like foil. It has generated royalties in the "high five figures."

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