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Hard Times Drive Older Workers Back to School

Mass layoffs around the nation have prodded many older workers to consider returning to college to improve their job opportunities.

An AARP Bulletinback-to-school poll of people age 50-plus found that about one in six surveyed say it’s likely they’ll return to school. Of those, nearly half (47 percent) say they’re going back to sharpen skills that might help them on the job, 39 percent are doing it strictly for pleasure and 21 percent want to make more money or increase their opportunities for promotions.

Among those who are thinking about going back to school, nearly one-third (30 percent) say they’re considering attending a community college, 19 percent say they’re interested in a training program, and another 19 percent in continuing education courses.

It’s been a long time since many of those surveyed stepped foot inside a classroom. More than half (57 percent) say they last enrolled in classes more than 15 years ago, according to the poll of 1,006 people, surveyed between July 22 and Aug. 2.

Robert Sevier, senior vice president with Stamats Inc., a marketing and research company in Iowa that tracks higher education trends, says colleges tend to see a rise in their older-student populations during economic downturns. He says displaced workers seeking retraining or new careers are driving that trend.

“Right now in the United States, half, if not more, of all students are older students,” he says. “It’s not at all unusual to see students in their 50s or 60s at a community or technical college, or a regional public college.

“Historically, their employers paid for their education. That’s not the case anymore,” he adds. “They’re using family savings or borrowing money from other family members. We’ve even heard about parents borrowing money from their adult children to go back to school.”

Jim Brady, 46, of Mount Clemens, Mich., has used Michigan’s No Worker Left Behind program—a government-funded effort to help workers, particularly in the auto industry, retrain for jobs in other industries—to return to college. The program pays tuition costs of up to $5,000 a year for two years at Michigan colleges or approved training programs.

Brady, who lost his job with an auto supplier in March, went to Macomb Community College to learn technical skills in computer numerical control. He also signed up for a four-day seminar on computer-aided software design.

“I’m trying to get more training and learn technical skills so I can be more competitive in job interviews,” says Brady. “The problem is there are so many of us unemployed and available, it’s frightening. I’m trying to restructure and learn the skills that companies are looking for.”

The federal economic stimulus plan, which was signed into law in February, also provided historic levels of support to the nation’s education system, including student aid for higher education.

But returning to school may not be a worthwhile pursuit for everyone. Martha E. Mangelsdorf, author of Strategies for Successful Career Change, says higher education or training can be costly, and when a student is older, there’s less time to earn back what they’ve spent.

She says it’s important for prospective students considering a career change to talk to people who are working in that field to find out what kind of training is best. Also, make sure the field or industry is growing and that there’s a demand for workers.

“People age 45 and older changing careers are often able to find ways to get training that doesn’t involve going back to school full time for a degree,” Mangelsdorf says. “There may be some kind of industry certification you can get that will build up your expertise in a particular area. Older workers should think, How can I learn this as efficiently as possible and figure out what exactly is needed?”

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at AARP Bulletin Today.


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