Helping Those Over 50 Get a College Education

Jun 24, 2013

Virginia Western Community College is one of 36 new colleges taking part in a national effort to train 10 thousand baby boomers for new jobs in healthcare, education, and social services. 

As baby boomers reach age 65, some find the thought of retirement is just a dream.  An increasing number of Americans find themselves working beyond retirement age, whether by choice or necessity. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2006 to 2016, the number of workers aged 65 to 74 will increase by more than 80 percent.  But many of these older workers find a lack of current job skills such as dealing with computers or social media is a hindrance to getting a job or being promoted.

“They’re on the back end of their career.  They were looking forward to retiring from the company that they started working with.  And so when they were back out in the work world, in the job market, they were woefully lacking in the skills that are needed in today’s market.”

Leah Coffman is the Coordinator for Workforce Development Services at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke. She says the college focuses on academic programs for traditional students and has vocational programs for high-demand skills but hasn’t addressed the needs of so-called “ageless learners”, those over the age of 50 with less than 20 years of work life left.

“They don’t have the job skills they need to be marketable.  They don’t know how to learn.  They either have been out of college for a long time or they are coming into a college environment for the first time.  And when you’re over 50, that’s a terrifying experience.”

Sarah Olson, Education Support Specialist with Workforce Development Services at Virginia Western, works with adults in the Roanoke Valley and Botetourt County and sees the frustration of unemployed older residents first hand.

“The ones that I’ve spoken to, a lot of them did just find other employment, maybe employment that didn’t pay as well.  A lot of them remained unemployed or they came to college but they’re struggling.  They’ve definitely got the intelligence and the skills to achieve in many areas but one of the big hang-ups is computer skills and frankly, if you haven’t been in a classroom for 20, 30, 40 years, it can be really intimidating.  So a lot of these students, they might start a program and then drop out or they just don’t attempt it because they don’t think that that’s for them.”

She says a lack of knowledge about where to find help is available is often a barrier in getting those workers to return to college or enroll for the first time.

“When I talk to them about the fact that they can go to our computer center and get some of that training that they need, they had no idea that they could do that.  And I think they think that that’s not for me because I’m not a new student-I’m not 18 so it’s not something that’s available to me.  And I think a big part of this grant is actually letting people know that yeah, the community college is for everyone.  It’s definitely for you.”

That’s where the Plus 50 Encore Completion Program comes in; to encourage and help those older learners get the skills they need to stay competitive in the workforce, especially if they’re looking for a job.

About five or six years ago, Virginia Western put all its course information and marketing materials online, so Coffman says the first thing she and her staff will do with the 3-year, $15,000 grant is to develop a print guidebook. 

“That will give them everything they need to know about the college experience, the career coaches they can go to work out a career pathway; the career placement specialists that we have that can help them find employment afterwards; the resources in the learning center and throughout the college campus.  The faculty, they can help them be successful in their college career.”

They’ll also find ways to adapt the curriculum and teaching styles to appeal to an older learner and determine how much credit to give for prior experience.

“They have years of real world experience.  Do they really want to cover all of that over again in a classroom? They may not have had the formal training but if there is documentation that they’ve got that experience, we’ll look at ways we can give them credit for that experience.”

Coffman sees the program as benefitting more than just those wanting to get back into the workforce.

“We consider ourselves a serious driver in the economic wellbeing of this community.  And so, as we reach out to these older learners, as we continue to reach out to the community and we have a better educated, a better trained, and a better prepared community, that benefits the entire Roanoke region.”

Virginia Western is working with several community partners including Goodwill Industries, Total Action for Progress, and the Local Office on Aging, as part of a framework that will exist after the grant expires. But students don’t have to wait until the guidebook is done to enroll.  Coffman says there are adult career counselors and job placement coordinators already in place to assist those students in getting through college and help them find a job.