Older workers looking to stay ahead of the curve

Retraining, professional development crucial as workforce ages

Dawn Groves, an instructor at Whatcom Community College who teaches a seven-week course called “The Office Professional,” said many of her students are older professionals. She has been teaching adult learners for 15 years. In the background is Sven Schroeder, who is considering taking a computer class at WCC.

Dan Hiestand
   If you drop in on a community education class at Whatcom Community College, don’t be surprised to see a large percentage of the students over the age of 50, said Greg Marshall, director of community education at the college.
   “We see a lot of (older students) in our business classes and our computer classes. And a lot of the time they are starting a new business, or have retired and are starting up with somebody new,” said Marshall “Maybe they came from a career that didn’t require them to do that much, or they were the boss of the company and they had people (to take care of tasks), and now they don’t, or now they have time.”
   Whatever the reason, older students — and businesspeople — are a very visible portion of the student landscape, and their numbers coincide with statistics that indicate the workforce is getting older.

Older workers learn new tricks
   In 2004, there were more people age 55 and older in the workforce than at any time since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting this type of data in 1948. The year was also notable because it had the highest labor-force participation rate — 36 percent — of 55-and-older workers in more than 30 years.
   According to government numbers, this is simply the beginning of a trend, as the baby boomers work longer. The bureau projects that the annual growth rate of the 55-and-older segment will be 4.1 percent between 2002 and 2012— or four times the annual growth rate for the overall labor force. Forecasts predict that nearly one in five American workers will be 55 or older in just five years.
   In addition, AARP recently reported that approximately seven of 10 workers between the ages of 50 and 70 plan to work in retirement or never retire.
   Marshall said these kinds of numbers seem to translate to the classroom, where older students try to gain skills.
   “Where we notice many of them is in our business workshops,” he said. “We do notice a lot of people — and I hear anecdotally from them — that are starting new careers.”
   While the number of older students doesn’t seem to be increasing at the college, Marshall estimates the average age to be about 50 in the business and computer education classes. The baby boomers are doing things differently than the generation prior, Marshall said.
   “Our grandparents worked and retired,” he said. “For this generation — I’ve noticed — there is no definitive end. A second career is almost looked forward to.”
   For older workers who never had a chance to learn the ubiquitous office skills of today’s business world — such as basic word processing — education is not just desirable, but essential, said Gary Smith.
   Smith is the regional manager of WorkSource Northwest, a network of organizations and career centers in Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties that offers a variety of services to businesses and job seekers — including older employees.
   Smith said WorkSource, a partnership that incorporates nonprofits, government agencies, community and technical colleges and other community-based organizations, recently teamed up with Microsoft as part of a pilot program to test a software package called “Microsoft Unlimited Potential.” The program is designed to provide basic computer skills to under-served populations throughout the world, including here in Whatcom County.
   “The objective (of the program) is to elevate the digital literacy levels of the workforce to be compatible with the needs of businesses in the community,” Smith said. “They are hoping to train a quarter-million people around the globe, and we were really privileged to be at the front end of that program.”
   Many of the program participants are older, Smith said.
   “We’re finding that it’s the older workers, or mature-worker population, that is in most need,” Smith said. “The demographics of the people attending the (Microsoft courses) is proof of that. Those are the folks that need to retool or build those skill sets to be marketable in the workplace.”
   Many of the participants — who are either unemployed, re-entering the workforce or are stalled due to a lack of skills — advance from the program into jobs such as data entry, medical reception and customer service, Smith said.

Professional development
   Dawn Groves, an instructor at WCC who teaches a seven-week course called “The Office Professional,” said many of her students are older professionals. She has been teaching adult learners for 15 years, starting at Bellingham Technical College before moving to WCC.
   “I teach people who are returning from having been out of work for periods of time, either because they were raising children or because of illness. And I also get people in my classes who have been doing a particular job and they have been laid off, or found that the job is no longer making it for them, and they want to try to move up career-wise,” said Groves. “So they have to become technically proficient rather fast.”
   The vast majority of her students are women, she said.
   “The men that I get in there have often been laid off from a position that they’ve held for a long period of time, and they are trying to retrain themselves so they can go back out and get work. The women are, oftentimes, just looking to upgrade skills. They’ve been working, but they are stuck in a dead-end position,” Groves said.
   In order to get into the course, students must have basic computer knowledge, Groves said.
   “Many times, (the older students) have been using a computer, but they just haven’t been using it except in a very narrow way,” she said. “What they are doing is broadening their skill level because a lot of jobs out there (require it).”
   Students learn a variety of skills, Marshall said.
   “A big focus is on their core skills, such as word processing and spreadsheets and those skills. We’ve seen a lot of the older students coming back into some of the Internet-related classes. We even see businesspeople learning how to use digital cameras.”
   Students enrolled in computer courses have ranged in age from as young as 12 to almost 100 years old, while business students typically range from 18 to 70.
   “A lot of them are really motivated to learn, especially when you are talking about computer skills,” he said. “We get people who are terrified of the computer, and we get people who just don’t have the skills.”
   The most difficult thing for many of the students is simply remembering how to learn, Marshall said.
   “I think it is only more difficult because most of them have not had to sit down and learn something in a long time,” he said. “Over their life, they learn things all the time. But when it comes to computers, it’s more a systematical process of learning and focus. The last time most people have done that is in school or college. They haven’t had to do that unless they’ve had to go get some certification.”
   Groves said her biggest challenge is helping older students overcome fear.
   “They have a lot of fear about moving into new territory and not being competent and not being able to learn new material,” Groves said. “The younger students don’t have that same fear at all.”
   Some returning professionals have it a bit easier than others, Marshall said.
   “There are some careers that have it easier,” Marshall said. “I know that when we teach doctors computer skills, you tell them, you show them, they try it, they’re done. It’s because they are always learning something constantly.”
   In the end, older workers who add to their skill set repertoire are only helping themselves, Marshall said.
   “A lot of businesses — if they don’t learn the skills — they are going to be behind their younger counterparts,” Marshall said. “(However), it’s not that hard to get caught up on the curve.”

Skill development opportunities for older professionals

• Whatcom Community College offers a series of classes called “Quick and Easy” that focus on computer basics, as well as “The Office Professional.” Call 647-3277 to register, or visit WCC’s community education site at www.whatcomcommunityed.com.

• Bellingham Technical College offers a wide variety of business and computer classes. Go to the continuing education section of BTC’s Web site, www.btc.ctc.edu, or call 752-7000 for more information.

• WorkSource Northwest, a network of organizations and career centers in Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties, offers a variety of services to businesses and job seekers. The organization is at 101 Prospect St., Bellingham, and can be reached at 676-1521 or online at www.worksourcenorthwest.com.



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