Retirees Back at School

Robyn Tellefsen | March 28, 2012

When you look ahead to your retirement years, what images come to mind? Will you be spending more time with the grandkids? Tending your garden and cooking mouth-watering meals? Sitting on a beach somewhere sipping Mai Tais? However you envision the ideal retirement, the reality may turn out to be a bit different than what you had in mind.

And the reality is this: Unemployment is high, home values are low, and retirement accounts are in the toilet. So for many of us, getting out of the workforce entirely just isn’t an option anymore. Last year, about 36 percent of workers said they expected to keep working past age 65, compared with 20 percent in 2001, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

That’s why a good chunk of the 78 million baby boomers entering their retirement years are heading back to school to boost their job skills. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students ages 50 to 64 increased 17 percent nationwide between fall 2007 and fall 2009.

If you’re wondering where the 50+ set is going in droves, the answer is clear: community college. According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), 388,000 older adults were enrolled nationwide in fall 2009 – up 6 percent from 2007 and more than 12 percent from 2005. Nationwide, people over the age of 50 typically make up between 5-6 percent of community college enrollment.

Going back to school isn’t a death sentence for retirees, though. For many, it has breathed new life into their golden years and given them purpose that they’d been missing.

Just look at the students benefiting from the Plus 50 Initiative of the AACC, which is tailored to the needs of adult learners/workers. Through the Plus 50 Initiative, community colleges create or expand campus programs to engage the 50+ population in learning; training or retraining programs; and volunteer, civic, or service activities.

Michael Wright is one of these students. After working for 30 years in Washington State’s Department of Corrections at McNeil Island, he was left without a job last year when the island prison was shut down.

“I was down to $139 in my savings account, not knowing where my money was going to come from,” he says.

Fortunately, Wright discovered the aerospace composite technician program for military veterans at Clover Park Technical College (Lakewood, WA), and is now looking forward to starting a new career with Boeing or another corporate partner.

“This program is going to allow me to rise above being a feeder fish from the people above. I feel blessed,” he says. “I’m on a mission. I know I’ll succeed.”

–Robyn Tellefsen

It’s Monday, which means it’s time for another installment of CollegeSurfing’s blog series, From Laid Off to Learning. This week, we profile a woman making the transition from Super Mom to Super Student. For other inspiring stories, be sure to subscribe to our blog.

Sometimes life can get in the way of learning, like it did for Stephanie Hale of Chelsea, Michigan. After high school, Hale started her degree at community college, but she then got married and eventually left school to raise a family. She later started a career in sales and marketing, and between growing family obligations and the good fortune of maintaining gainful employment, Hale’s educational plans slipped off her radar.

Hale enrolled in Cleary University in 2005, but it once again proved to be a false start. It wasn’t until she was laid off from a sales and marketing position in February of 2009 that she decided enough was enough: she was going back to school and completing her degree.

“It was just determination,” Hale, 42, says of the thought process behind the decision to make her realize her educational goals. She views a college degree as a key component not only in her career, but in what was becoming an increasingly difficult economy.

“I want to be a contender,” Hale says.

So Hale went back to Cleary in order to seal the deal on her bachelor’s degree in business administration, enrolling first with distance learning classes, then traditional ones on campus. While she thinks that online classes are convenient, Hale has an outgoing and verbal personality, which she credits to her experience in sales, that lends itself better to classroom learning.

Cleary University is not only a good choice for Hale’s business studies, but also in getting her reacquainted to the classroom. “Cleary does a great job of helping anyone understand how to be a college student,” she says, referring to the difficulty that traditional students sometimes have adjusting to college, especially those returning to campus after 20+ years. Cleary offers a class called Academic Planning and Preparation that is a requirement for all students. An organizational class at its core, the course also teaches life skills that help students maintain a healthy balance between life and study, and it’s been invaluable for Hale.

Returning to college is a hard decision to make, and it’s one that is made even harder when a family is involved. Luckily for Hale, three of her children were grown up and out of the house, but her 8-year-old son was still very much at home. When she broke the news about going back to school, he hesitated only slightly before asking, “Oh, what grade?” Now, Hale says that they are able to do their homework together, although her young son often boasts that he can finish his homework a lot more quickly than she can finish hers.

Hale says that while every personality profile test she has ever taken says that she should have a career in sales, she admits that she also likes the prospect of employee training. She, like many other teachers, enjoys the “aha moment” that occurs when students understand the very concept that the teacher is trying to convey.

Of course, there are many sales and marketing opportunities available in the education industry, so Hale has many career options after graduating from Cleary. One thing is for certain, though—her future job will be working for what she considers to be a “noble cause.” She explains that her main purpose is to do something she can feel really good about at the end of the day.

But for now, Hale is just looking to beat an 8-year-old in a homework race.

-Barbara Bellesi

Welcome back to Insider’s series, From Laid Off to Learning series.  This week, we focus on how to handle money matters and health insurance questions in the wake of a layoff.

Be sure to check in each Monday for some additional expert tips and inspiring stories of layoff survivors heading back to the classroom. Even easier, subscribe now.

Money Matters >>

The most frightening aspect of being laid off for many people, especially those supporting families, is losing your financial stability. Start taking measures right away to curb spending, generate income, and protect your investments.

* Your rainy day has arrived. If you haven’t thought about how to reduce expenses before, now is the time to start implementing some frugal living. Start by talking with your family about cutting expenses; call companies like your utilities and credit card companies to negotiate better rates; etc., says Susan Steinbrecher, an executive coach who specializes in leadership, operations, human resources and training. “Try conserving gas, do less driving, lower your thermostat, cut coupons, cancel unnecessary services like cable, housecleaning, and more,” she adds.

* Contact your financial advisor. Wondering what will happen to your 401K? Chances are your former company isn’t going to offer you any advice in that regard. Your best bet is to call your financial advisor, or the company that maintains your portfolio, to discuss your options. These can include rolling it over into an IRA, or simply leaving it be. Unless you’re in severe dire straights, you’ll want to try to avoid cashing it out since you’ll be assessed a hefty tax penalty, and may never get around to replenishing it.

* File for unemployment – don’t hesitate! “The process could take an extended period of time and that lag could mean not having any revenue coming in,” warns Linda Amaro, co-founder of NextWork Services. Important to note: You qualify for unemployment even if you are receiving severance pay. If you’re in a high unemployment state, the recent economic stimulus package has added up to 20 additional weeks of unemployment benefits. Click here for a directory of state umemployment offices – many of which allow you to apply right online.

Health Insurance >>

Second to not having your steady income is losing your health benefits. How can you ensure that you’ll be covered — and be able to afford that coverage?

* Get a COBRA clue. Here are the facts: If you had health insurance with your employer, you will be offered the option to continue those benefits up to 18 months through COBRA. The good news is that with last year’s stimulus package, you may be eligible for government subsidized COBRA rates.  Check it out, and review the costs of COBRA versus obtaining an independent plan through a local HMO or PPO provider.

* Get some spousal support. If your spouse is still employed and the employer offers insurance, the loss of your job is a triggering event which would enable you to enroll in your spouse’s insurance plan as long as you do so within 30 days of the date your job ended, notes Q. VanBenschoten, director of human resources at North America for Intertek.  “If you chose to enroll in your spouse’s plan, your benefits should be retroactive to the date you lost coverage.”

* Check up time. One of the first things you should ask about if you’re laid off is if your health coverage will extend via your severance package. That way, you’ll know just how long you have to play catch up on all of the doctor appointments and checkups you’ve been putting off. If you’re due for your yearly physical or have prescriptions to fill, get going before your coverage expires.

Be sure to check in next Monday when we’ll meet another layoff survivor who’s hitting the books.

-Dawn Papandrea

From Laid Off to Learning: Getting the News

Dawn Papandrea | January 12, 2010

It’s a new year, and with that, we decided to take the next few editions of the Insider’s series, From Laid Off to Learning, in a different direction. We’re reflecting on what we learned about layoffs during the tough 2009 year, and how we can prepare ourselves should it ever happen to us. This week’s focus is on what to do in the immediate aftermath of getting the news.

Be sure to check in each Monday for some additional expert tips and inspiring stories of layoff survivors heading back to the classroom. Even easier, subscribe now.

In today’s economic climate, there’s a good chance the inevitable can happen to you, your spouse, or someone you know. No matter how safe you feel your job is or how many years you have invested, no one is immune to getting laid off.

What to do when you get the news >>

Emotions will run high. Panic might set in. But before you do or say something you’ll regret later, take it all in, and then put together a game plan for moving onward and upward.

* Make a timeline. How long will severance pay run? When do you need to enroll in COBRA coverage? When can you sign up for unemployment benefits, and how soon after that will they start? Sit down with a piece of paper, says Darcy Eikenberg, a professional coach and mentor, and map it all out. “Most post-employment deals are full of dates and deadlines, but they rarely are listed all in one place. Take the time to figure them out and put them in date order so that you don’t miss one by accident.”

* Go over your severance package with a fine-toothed comb. Read all the materials you’re given immediately, highlighting passages that aren’t clear, adds Eikenberg. “If something in your documents is different from what you heard from your boss or HR person explain, do not hesitate to ask for clarification. Handling layoffs is still new to a lot of companies (especially smaller organizations). Sometimes the people tasked with handling the details are still learning how to handle each layoff situation.”

* Take what you can get, then ask for more. In other words, says Aricia E. LaFrance, a professional certified career coach, you can and should try to negotiate your lay off package. “Many people just take the package offered and walk away, but often there is wiggle room.  Consider not only the money, but the perks.” For instance, she explains, sometimes you can negotiate a longer period of time to have your health insurance covered – that can be a savings of $700 per month for some people!

* Get your references lined up. As soon as you know the layoff is coming, don’t hesitate to ask for a letter of recommendation from your employer, recommends Dr. Colleen Georges, a NJ-based resume writer and career coach. “It should not only indicate what you have to offer, but also that the loss of employment was due to a layoff or mass-layoff,” she says.

* Be ready with questions. Your last day will no doubt be emotional, but as it approaches, keep a running list of questions to ask at your exit interview. Go into that exit meeting with questions like: When do my benefits end? Who do I call? When is my last paycheck? Can you be a reference?

Although layoffs may come as a shock, with these points in mind, it doesn’t have to be completely out of your control.

Check in next Monday when experts share tips on dealing with money matters and health insurance when you’ve been laid off.

-Dawn Papandrea