02/07/2013 05:17 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Back to College at 50

Going back to school at 50 can be daunting. However, The American Association of Community College Plus 50 Encore Program has set a target of enrolling more than 10,000 students age 50 and older at more than 100 community college campuses. Forty percent of the group will be targeted to earn college credentials by 2015. In 2009, adults age 55 and older made up nearly a fifth of the nation's labor force, the highest share since 1948 when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking age-specific participation rates.

Unemployed older workers face formidable challenges. In 2009 only about 15 percent of them found jobs each month. Many of these older workers have not been in a classroom for more than 30 years. Those still working full-time often also shoulder family responsibilities. But they know that in order to remain competitive in today's job market they need to sharpen their skills.

Those who find themselves unemployed must learn new skills in order to pursue a different occupation. There is a genuine need in many local communities for workers in the high-demand, high-growth sectors of healthcare, education and social services. These fields are especially appealing to many baby boomers because they provide an opportunity to give back to their community while earning a good salary. Some of these jobs require a two-year degree, but many only require completion of a certificate program. An independent evaluation of the Plus 50 Encore Program found that 89 percent of students agreed that college work force training helped them acquire new job skills. In fact, 72 percent attributed landing a job to this training. Community colleges are particularly well-positioned to train older workers because they offer a supportive environment, flexible schedules, emphasis on practical job training, and affordable tuition rates.

Many community colleges, such as Ivy Tech in Indiana, already have programs in place with local businesses to provided specific training for their present and future workers. Currently, the Ivy Tech-Northwest Health Industry Institute for Education and Training Services is recruiting 50 plus workers for its Community Health Worker program. Graduates of this program provide health outreach, assistance, and management of the overall health outcomes of patients. As the healthcare sector evolves under President Obama's new insurance initiatives, these workers will help patients or potential patients receive immediate care before they need to be admitted to a hospital or long-term health setting. This reduces medical costs and is essential to community health. Most students 50 and over welcome an opportunity to learn a new skill as they envision themselves as part of the workforce for another 15 to 20 years. The AACC Plus 50 Encore Completion Program makes it much easier for them to continue contributing to society.