In his mid-fifties, as he wound down his 32-year career with CN, Ray Spencer of West Kelowna, B.C., went back to school. A year before his retirement at 55, the rail-line constable began taking human resources courses online, through Athabasca University. Now he is preparing for a new career.
“I like working,” says Mr. Spencer. “I left CN because it was time to move on, but I’m willing to work for the next 20 years.”
Many mature students return to school purely out of academic interest, or as something fulfilling to do in their retirement years. But older learners are also taking classes with a goal of generating an income, as Mr. Spencer illustrates. Ten per cent of college students and seven per cent of university students are 40-plus, according to Statistics Canada.
Since his retirement, Mr. Spencer has taken 12 courses from Athabasca, earning a certificate in HR and labour relations. As he continues to study towards a BA in the field, he feels that he’s poised for a rewarding second career.
“I was interested in job design, job analysis, and how to motivate people,” he says.
In some ways, older students have an advantage when they return to school, he says. “We’re more mature so we know what we want, and we’re more focused.”
As older students go back to school and try to re-enter the workforce in a new role, Mr. Spencer hopes employers will be open-minded. He says some employers might be inclined to favour younger prospects, perhaps feeling that older workers won’t stay in the job long. With the help of a mentor through B.C. Human Resources Management Association, Mr. Spencer learned how to write a resumé that removed a lot of date and age references, to avoid age discrimination.
What motivates career-oriented older learners? For some, the interests are financial, as they face dwindling prospects in a former career, can’t afford to retire, or lack a company pension.
Other students simply want to stay involved in the workforce, by taking on a new challenge.
“They’re looking for skills upgrading and updating, to stay current and to try something different,” says Ross Mayot, Vice President, Community Development for CARP, an advocacy group for older Canadians, formerly known as the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.
“People want a continuing sense of purpose,” he says.
While going back to the school and embarking on a new career path can keep your mind active and engaged, Mr. Mayot says, this breed of learner is also good for the economy. They fill and create jobs, pay taxes, perhaps delay taking a pension, and can also continue to mentor younger workers.
He notes school and career paths used to be linear – people went from high school to post-secondary education to the workforce to retirement. Mature students were people in their 20s. Now, Mr. Mayot says, mature students can be 20, 30, 40 years older than that, as more and more people are jumping in and out of education and the workforce.
Mary Devine, Chair of the School of Continuing Education and Corporate Training at Centennial College in Toronto, says she is seeing more adults return to post-secondary education as a result of the difficult economy.
Julia James, a life coach in Vancouver, has clients in their 60s who are looking to go back to school and make a new and often very different contribution to the workforce. “It’s not unusual now for people to reconsider their career path at any age,” she says.
Bibi Mandol of Toronto, 59, recently started a new career as a travel consultant after taking a travel and tourism program at Centennial College. She has made a habit of going back to school and switching careers. Ms. Mandol was an office supervisor at The Bay, took a hairdressing course and become a stylist on the side, then became a full-time stylist and eventually an area supervisor for a chain of hair salons.
When she was downsized in 2009, Ms. Mandol switched gears again. She admits that she was nervous taking the one-year Centennial program. She thought she would feel out of place, that all of the other students would be so much younger. In fact, she met and befriended students of all ages and from all backgrounds.
“Going back to school brought out the best of me,” she says. “My mother always said you learn from the crib to the grave.”