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Six Steps to Helping Career Changers Re-Enter the Workforce

Six Steps to Helping Career Changers Re-Enter the Workforce
Colleges and universities have a fantastic opportunity to capitalize on the growing and largely untapped marketplace of older adults pursuing career changes.
Jake’s self-introduction on the first day of his non-credit continuing education class summed it up perfectly: “I’m 53 years old and have worked in an open-pit copper mine for 35 years, right after I barely graduated high school. My only education since then has been in a trailer on the pit, being yelled at to be safe and drive slowly. I’m nervous about being on a college campus and I’m a slow reader. The unemployment office sent me here to become a computer expert, but I don’t know how to turn on a computer.”

Jake is not alone; more and more adults are beginning to seek out new careers later in life. We’re no longer in the era of an individual working for the same company for 40 years and retiring at 60. There are multiple reasons for this. For one, the Careers Advice Service found that nearly half of adults over the age of 50 are still looking for their dream job. The other, probably more pressing and significant, issue that’s driving older people to continue looking for work is economic necessity.

The recent recession wreaked havoc on the savings of many, and laid-off workers over 50 years old were out of work for an average of 22 weeks — six weeks longer than younger unemployed individuals. What’s more, older workers typically face greater age discrimination during the hiring process — for example, questions arise about their skills and ability to use modern technology — and when they find work, they often wind up experiencing a significant drop in earnings. Ultimately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of 55 to 64-year-old workers will rise by about 36.5 percent between 2006 and 2016, and the number of workers over 65 will explode by 80 percent over the same period.

Higher education institutions can capitalize on the growing marketplace of older adults going through a career transition. The baby boomer generation counts 78 million Americans among its ranks and, in a recent study, the American Association of Community Colleges found that 93 percent of institutions surveyed were seeing demand for career-focused programs and services from this age group.

So, how does a higher education institution, adept at working with Jake’s children, change to better serve older career changers like Jake?

1. Make the Bureaucracy Easier

Higher education bureaucratic processes are notably complex and, especially for someone who has not been involved with an enrollment process or financial aid application for decades, it can become a barrier to access. To overcome this, institutions should offer services such as in-person service advising and registration, numerous flexible payment options, printed class summaries and a plethora of online options. Tangible items and a friendly face with a compassionate ear help ease the stress of more mature students.

2. Make Workforce Expectations Conceivable

Many older career changers will have been out of work for some time, and most will be looking to enter into a completely new industry, requiring a totally different set of both hard and soft skills. This can be daunting for older adults who are already out of their comfort zone at the college or university. Higher education institutions should provide internship, job shadow and placement opportunities so career changers can see, first hand, what to expect in their new job. Even if the shadow is on-campus in another department, the chance to see how the new job functions can help set and manage expectations.

3. Make Time to Completion Secondary to Topic Mastery

Everyone, put your pitchforks and torches down; I don’t mean make the course content easier. We need to allow future class audits and retakes at no charge.

Teaching ‘an old dog new tricks’ might take a while, especially if new technology or processes are used. We must allow older career-changing students to try again and again until they feel comfortable with the ‘new tricks.’ Also, consider allowing your students’ spouses or children to attend part of a class, as the second set of eyes and ears might be able to help your student grasp content at home or outside of class.

4. Make Course Attendance Convenient

This one applies to every opportunity devised for non-traditional students, but is critically important and, somehow, always tends to be left off of the final list of changes to be made. It’s absolutely vital that institutions offer morning, daytime and half-day classes to accommodate changing and packed schedules. Career changers will have interviews, appointments and other stressors in their life in addition to a new career and their education. Allow them the time to balance their life so they can focus on their education when their schedules allow and find the work they need.

5. Make Their Experience Count

Despite the fact that older adults are transitioning into new careers, they bring with them decades of experience, knowledge and competency. What’s more, these learners will often be made extremely nervous by the prospect of years at school before they can enter the workforce again. By offering credit for work experience, competency and prior learning, you can show older career changers they’re already on track for a credential and take some of the panic out of the process.

6. Make Their Enrollment as Short as Possible

This sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me. Older career changers often see education as critical to their capacity to enter into a new industry. After all, they need to get a grasp on the basic skills needed to succeed in a new environment. However, these are not 18 to 22-year-olds with their whole lives ahead of them. These students will often have dependents — both children and older parents, in many cases — and will be anxious to find work as quickly as possible. By modularizing degree programs and creating numerous ways of delivering content, administrators can help career changers gain the knowledge and skills they need for an entry-level position, and can continue to support their career advancement through ongoing education once they get their foot in the door.


As the median age of our workforce increases, higher education institutions can make small adjustments to best serve the older career-changing student.

Jake’s story ends well: his friendly personality and spirit of ‘get it done right the first time’ combined with the skills learned in his continuing education program helped him earn a job working for an Internet service provider on the helpdesk. Now, it’s high time we make sure we’re supporting other older career changers achieve comparable outcomes.

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