As she winds down from a successful career as a copywriter, 62-year-old Helen Battersby is revving up a new line of work as a garden coach – one designed to last well into retirement.
Like others baby boomers for whom quitting work at or before 65 is not a financial option, Ms. Battersby turned to higher education to reinvent herself for the next stage of her working life.
With a certificate in landscape design in 2011 from Ryerson University's G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education and a previously earned horticultural certificate from the University of Guelph, she founded Gardenfix four years ago with Sarah Battersby, her sister and fellow garden blog writer.
They make house calls to Toronto homeowners in search of a blooming backyard.
"I have always been good at looking ahead, and the question I ask myself is 'Will someone hire a 65-year-old copywriter?' " says Helen Battersby, who still does some work as a freelance copywriter.
"I thought 'Here is this garden coaching thing: I could be doing that in my 80s,' " says the long-time volunteer with Toronto Master Gardeners.
"It would segue as the writing projects slowed down and the gardening coaching business would pick up and that has proven to be the case."
While national data are hard to come by, colleges and universities report steady or growing demand from the 50-plus cohort for professional development credentials, such as certificates, offered in weeks or months, in class or online or part- or full-time.
"There are pockets of universities looking to reach out to, and to support, workers who want to extend [their careers] or pursue something new," says Lorraine Carter, past president of the Canadian Association for University Continuing Education.
In economically depressed areas, she notes, "there is a pressing need for people to work and that might mean recreating who you are."
The 2008-9 recession reshaped attitudes to retirement.
"Even though the crisis is technically over, the employment situation is still an issue," says Chang dean Marie Bountrogianni. At Ryerson, 17 per cent of those enrolled in professional courses in architecture, engineering and science are 55-plus compared to about 12 per cent five years ago.
"[Seniors] still want to be passionate about what they do in the work force but they are looking for a job to pay the bills," she says.
Colleges report the same trend.
"Where we are really seeing significant growth is in seniors looking for employability skills-type training in the online education market," says Colin Simpson, dean of continuous learning at Toronto's George Brown College, citing double-digit growth over the past three years.
Of 200 continuing-education online courses, he says 70 are technical in nature and account for more students, of all ages, than all other online courses combined.
For many seniors, "freedom 55" was a mirage, Mr. Simpson says. "By the time they get to their mid-50s, they realize they don't have money to retire and are faced with the prospect of working for another 10 years or longer."
At Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., 50-plus learners account for about 20 per cent of continuing education learners, according to Michael Cassidy, associate dean of Continuing and Professional Studies. Older learners, he adds, are "very serious, highly motivated and no-nonsense" and comfortable learning online.
His college is one of several educational institutions that work with Third Quarter, a Winnipeg-based non-profit recruitment agency matching employers with 45-plus workers, many returning to school to brush up skills.
"There is more interest now than there was before," says Third Quarter executive director Sue Barkman. "You're 50 and you're still going to work for another five to 10 years."
For some pre-retirees, higher education is a route to enhanced professional credentials.
Patricia Ugoh, a registered practical nurse in St. Catharines, Ont., graduates later this year with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from North Bay's Nipissing University, qualifying her as a registered nurse at higher pay.
The Nigeria-born 51-year-old was determined to earn a degree to honour her late father – an ambition made possible by Nipissing's unique blend of online, part-time studies. Ms. Ugoh earned her degree over five years while working full-time in the Niagara [Region] Health System.
Of 600 Nipissing nursing students, 5.1 per cent are 50 years or older, according to program manager Wenda Caswell. "We are bringing degree studies to those who would not have been able to access them before."
Higher education institutions are still figuring out how to respond to the emerging "silver economy," says Gordon Michael, director of the continuing education division at St. Mary's University in Halifax.
"Baby boomers are living longer, they are better educated and they want to stay engaged with the broader community," he says. "There are people who need to keep working for financial reasons, but others want to have a purpose in life and stay engaged in the community."
Two years ago, his division established the "silver economy engaged network," linking seniors who want to work, add skills for a new career or start their own business with local employers.
As for Ms. Battersby, her new career lets her do what she loves – and get paid for doing it.
Tips on reinventing your career
A former barrista, education psychologist, business executive and Ontario cabinet minister, Marie Bountrogianni is currently dean of Ryerson University's Chang School of Continuing Education. She offers some tips on reinventing a career, including:
– Stay relevant and figure out market demand.
– Customize learning with online options.
– Pursue networking opportunities.
– Find ways to stand out from the crowd.