With high unemployment, low home values and downsized retirement accounts, hundreds of thousands of baby boomers are turning to college to boost their job skills.
The number of students ages 50 to 64 increased 17 percent nationwide between fall 2007 and fall 2009, according to the latest data available from the National Center for Education Statistics.
In southwest Ohio, that number has grown at an even faster rate at many technical and community colleges, which handle the bulk of nontraditional students.
"One of the things we started doing was catering to that population 50 and over. Today, the baby boomers are the biggest growth area for our campuses across the state," said Corey Holliday, director of admissions at Clark State Community College in Springfield.
The number of students age 50 and older at Clark State has climbed 60 percent since the recession began in 2007 to 246 students at the beginning of the fall term last year, reflecting similar gains at community colleges throughout the area.
Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, for example, has also seen its 50-plus student enrollment grow by 60 percent from 333 to 532 students during the past five years.
And Sinclair Community College in Dayton has its 50-and-older enrollment climb 7 percent.
Many of those new students are displaced factory workers and trade workers laid off during the recession when their companies downsized or shut down.
John Halley, 59, is a prime example.
In 2010, he enrolled in a program for CNC machinists at Sinclair after he was laid off from his job making silicon wafers for computer chips at SUMCO in Maineville.
"I've been out of school for 40 years,'' said Halley, who lives with his wife, Linda, in Morrow. "To go back and take classes with young kids, it was rough. But it was either that or not being able to get a job with pay that was worth it."
Halley was forced to cut back on his class schedule after landing a job at HI-TEK Manufacturing in Mason about a year ago.
"I've been lucky enough to already find a job because of Sinclair," he said. "Just being able to put that on my resume helped me get a job, even though I haven't graduated.
"I'm grateful for the job, but I thought I'd be retired by now or at least getting close to retirement," he said.
Andrew Rohrbach, who enrolled at Sinclair after he was laid off from his job as a manufacturing supervisor at Dayton-based Precision Gauge & Tool in 2008, hasn't been as fortunate.
Rohrbach, 58, graduated in 2010 with two associate degrees; one in business management and one in supply chain management.
"I still couldn't buy a job," he said.
Rohrbach transferred his credits from Sinclair to Ohio University, where he graduated last summer with a bachelor's degree in technical and applied studies.
He still hasn't found a job. But he likes his chances.
"I'm confident I'll eventually find a job," Rohrbach said. "But I think those who either don't have a college education or specialized training of some sort are going to have a really hard time finding one."
With 78 million baby boomers entering their retirement years, the country -- not to mention Ohio -- needs more experienced workers like Rohrbach to stay in the work force longer, officials said.
"Keeping older workers engaged in the labor force is vital for the continued economic growth of our region," said Bill LaFayette, a Columbus economist and owner of the consulting firm Regionomics.
The labor force growth rate has already been declining and is projected to slow to a crawl between 2020 and 2025 because of the exodus of baby boomers, he said.
With people living longer, healthier lives, there is also a new demand for programs designed to train the over-50 population, said Celia Crossley, a career strategist and managing partner of Crosworks.
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.
"It's a different world today where 50 to 70 is considered the new 'middle age,' " Crossley said.
Martha Harrison, 52, of Powell north of Columbus began considering a return to college in 2005 after more than 20 years as a preschool teacher. She was motivated by two primary factors: money and a desire to get a counseling degree to help children deal with their increasingly complicated home lives.
"Preschool teachers barely make above minimum wage, which makes no sense when you think about taking care of someone's most-valuable asset," Harrison said.
She tried a few online psychology classes with a for-profit college in 2005, but didn't really get started on her education until she enrolled at Columbus State's Delaware campus in fall 2010. Harrison has enjoyed school so much she wants to transfer to Ohio State to work on a bachelor's degree and eventually earn a master's so she can become a school counselor. She isn't daunted by her age.
"The way I look at it, people my age, we have maybe 25 or more years left of working in us, especially in something that we enjoy," she said.
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