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Older learners should pitch their work experience

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Heather Ellison of St. Louis Community College discusses the successes and challenges in serving older learners at her college during the Plus 50 Conference in Washington, D.C.

​In today’s tough job market, unemployed workers age 50 and older are much more likely to be out of work longer than younger workers, according to recent studies. But older jobseekers can change that course if they pitch their work experience and soft skills to prospective employers.

Businesses can find workers with the technical skills for a job, but they often struggle to find employees with the skills acquired through years of experience—getting to work on time, dressing professionally, and being customer-focused, among others. Those are qualities older learners looking for new careers should highlight when applying for jobs, noted Blair Forlaw of the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association, which serves as the regional chamber of commerce for more than 4,000 member companies.

Forlaw spoke last week with representatives of community colleges participating in Plus 50, an initiative managed by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) that is focused on helping two-year colleges train older learners for new careers and to encourage them to earn credentials in their chosen fields.

Photos from Plus 50 Conference

A degree will help job applicants get through an employer’s door, but it does not guarantee that a person is right for the job, Forlaw said. A recent survey of human resource professionals showed that 80 percent of participants indicated “people skills” are very important to employers, she said. That includes being motivated, entrepreneurial and showing a desire to continuously learn and to keep up with changes.

Walk a mile

Community colleges also must do a better job of communicating with employers.

“We have lots of training going on, but they are not aligned with the jobs out there,” said AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus, who spoke at the Plus 50 Conference. “We have to do a better job for our local businesses.”

Forlaw emphasized that disconnect and encouraged colleges to think about training needs from the perspective of today’s businesses. Many companies now outsource work or hire temporary staff. Colleges should better prepare students for that type of environment, especially older workers who are more accustomed to staying at a job for years. That includes preparing students to serve as consultants or temps or in other alternative working arrangements.

“Think work, not jobs,” Forlaw said. “Think about the supply side as meeting the demands of the employers.”

How colleges approach businesses in presenting their students as potential workers can also make a difference. Too often, colleges and other organizations pitch that it is the civic or social duty of companies to hire a diverse workforce, which includes older workers, Forlaw said. A more successful approach is to highlight the strengths of a diverse workforce. For example, colleges have many information technology program graduates each year, but older learners also have a work history and know how to develop ideas from their experiences, she said.

Road to completion

Lumina Foundation is funding current Plus 50 projects, with a focus on credential completion (The Atlantic Philanthropies initially funded Plus 50). Several representatives from Plus 50 colleges noted that their learners are more interested in quickly acquiring the skills they need to land a job as soon as possible.

“That is the bottom line,” especially in this current economy, said Tracy Reilly-Kelly, program director at Clark College (Washington).

But a number of colleges that have been involved in Plus 50 for several years are seeing that students who initially take a few courses through the initiative tend to go on to a degree program. At Joliet Junior College in Illinois, 54 percent of learners who used a $100 tuition voucher to take a noncredit course at the college eventually enrolled in a degree program, said Kelly Lapetino, Plus 50 completion coordinator at the college. She noted that it’s a matter of older students—who often have not been in college for decades—becoming comfortable with the college environment.

Officials at Luzerne County Community College in Pennsylvania took a few credit programs and split them into a series of shorter, noncredit courses to help older learner acclimate to college, said Christine Donnolo, Plus 50 program director at the college. After taking the series of courses, students often look to enroll in a longer certificate program, she said.

Old jobs not coming back

A challenge for some Plus 50 colleges is educating older learners about the new economy. Step one is getting the message across that the old jobs are not coming back. That means accepting jobs that may have lower wages or salaries, said Heather Ellison, Plus 50 completion coordinator and manager of continuing education at St. Louis Community College (Missouri).

In the St. Louis area, many car-manufacturing plants and breweries have closed, resulting in massive layoffs. There is growth in health-care jobs, but often those positions are not at the same pay level as the defunct jobs, Ellison said noted. That can be frustrating for older learners seeking new careers.

“It’s a different job market,” Ellison said. “It’s something that they have never had to consider before.”

However, some older unemployed workers are taking a different approach and seeking to work for themselves. Ellison noted that several learners in the college’s Plus 50 program have expressed interest in starting their own businesses. 

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