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Plus 50 Initiative leads to good jobs for older workers


​The Plus 50 program at Spoon River College helped Denise Rebman swtich from a career in hair styling to one in health information management.

Photo: SRC

​When Curt Bielski’s furniture upholstery business went under — a victim of the economy — Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana threw him a lifeline.

At age 60, he went back to school, got certified in pharmacy technology and now has a full-time job in a pharmaceutical compounding lab.

Denise Rebman, 54, a former hair stylist who needed a new career, was also able to turn her life around after graduating from a community college. She earned an associate degree in health information management at Spoon River College in Illinois and now works full time at a local hospital.

Both of those students’ success stories are due to the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Plus 50 Initiative, which was started in 2008 to help two-year colleges reach out to people over 50 years old who were looking for a fresh start in a new career. Ivy Tech is in the Plus 50 Encore Completion program, an outgrowth of Plus 50. The Encore Completion program helps baby boomers earn credentials to become more competitive and more marketable — and ultimately land good jobs in high-demand fields, mostly in the helping professions, such as healthcare, social services and education, says Mary Sue Vickers, director of Plus 50 at AACC.

A network of 100 colleges is participating in the Plus 50 Encore Completion program, which is supported through a $3 million grant from Deerbrook Charitable Trust. AACC also received an $800,000 grant from Lumina Foundation to help another 20 colleges join the initiative.

Starting with the basics 

The participating colleges generally provide refresher courses in math and English and training in basic computer skills, career coaches and peer tutoring and additional assistance, such as helping students get credit for prior-learning experiences and access their high school transcripts.

“Older people may not be thinking of community college,” Vickers says, so colleges need to reach out to them. “This is a huge cohort of 78 million people that colleges concerned about declining enrollments can reach into.”

A session on weaving Plus 50 into your college will be featured at the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention in Washington, D.C., April 5-8.

The Plus 50 Completion program at Ivy Tech focuses on two areas, pharmacy technician and community health worker, says LaShung Willis, director of the Health Industry Institute for Education and Training Services at Ivy Tech’s Corporate College.

Willis used news releases and radio ads to recruit students for the Plus 50 program, and more than 50 prospective students attended an informational session in March. Those interested in enrolling are invited to free workshops to prepare them for college and the workforce. Topics include basic technology communication tools; “College and Me,” which covers career advising, setting educational goals and the college application process; and personal and professional development and networking. 

New beginnings

Most people in the Plus 50 programs are unemployed because their job was phased out and they need to upgrade their skills, Willis says. Others are interested in exploring new careers.

Bielski had managed his own upholstery shop — with four employees — for 27 years. But when the housing market slumped, few people needed slipcovers or drapes, so his business went under and he had to find a different job. (See video about Bielski at the end of this article.)

Bielski was one of 10 people accepted into Ivy Tech’s Plus 50 Encore Completion program for pharmacy technicians among 150 applicants. He was the first one to complete the accelerated, four-month program, earn two certifications and secure a full-time job. His tuition at Ivy Tech was paid by WorkOne, Indiana’s workforce development program.

Plus 50 evaluation reports

Going back to college was hard for Bielski, who had spent two years at Indiana University decades ago.

“The mathematics was brutal,” he recalls, especially “figuring out ratio proportions dealing with milliliters and milligrams. Ivy Tech provided tutors and I finally mastered it.”

“You have to study every night. If you don’t read two or three hours a day, I don’t know how you could do it,” he said. He used flash cards to memorize information about the hundreds of drugs he had to learn about.

Attaining crucial experience

After he graduated last August, Bielski wasn’t able to get a job right away — employers wanted someone with experience — so Willis helped him secure an unpaid eight-week externship with Vyto’s Pharmacy.

In March he was hired by Apex Compounding Pharmacy, where he produces custom topical medications ordered by physicians for treating patients with neuropathy, cancer, diabetes and joint pain, among other things.

Bielski says his job, which pays $13 an hour, is stressful, but he loves the work and is looking forward to getting into the company’s 401K and health insurance program. He’s also working on improving his typing skills so he can advance at the company.

Refresher courses

Spoon River College (SRC) is part of AACC’s Plus 50 Completion Strategy, a program aimed at increasing the number of students 50 and older, especially with some prior college credits, to complete college and find good jobs. SRC has also been designated as a “Champion College” to help scale up the Plus 50 Encore program.

Stephanie Howerter, the Plus 50 coordinator at SRC, publicizes the program at community fairs, where she finds many older people are interested in college but are concerned about the placement tests.

SRC eases those fears by offering free refresher courses in math and English to help students prepare for placement tests and also offers classes in basic computer skills. This spring, the college will begin offering a free session to Plus 50 students on using the Angel online learning system.

Life circumstances prompt a start in a new career

The Plus 50 students at SRC have a variety of backgrounds. Some were machinists who lost their jobs and are seeking new careers as commercial truck drivers or health information management technicians, Howerter says. Some are working on a basic associate degree so they can transfer to a university. And others already have basic healthcare jobs and want to earn a nursing degree.

SRC also offers programs in pharmacy tech, food service, K-12 paraprofessional, human resources, gerontology and other careers to the Plus 50 population.

Toughening it out 

College was never a priority for Rebman, now 54, who began working as a hairstylist after she graduated from high school and ran her own salon in her basement for 35 years. Today, she proudly holds an associate degree in health information management and works as a professional certified coder in the billing department at Pro Health, a division of Pekin Hospital.

“I was a little nervous about going back to school,” Rebman says. “I was afraid the kids would make fun of me, but they were very supportive.”

Her classes had a mix of ages, so she wasn’t the only non-traditional student.

More Plus 50 student stories

“I had really good teachers,” she says. “I really enjoyed school.”

But it was tough work.

“I had to really discipline myself,” Rebman says, noting that she had only taken one year of math in high school, so she had to start with the basics, working up to algebra and statistics and learning basic computer skills.

Rebman says likes her job and co-workers and appreciates Pro Health for hiring her without any prior experience. She has learned a lot on the job and is using what she learned at SRC, including medical terminology and English composition.

“It all kind of fell into place,” she says.

Rebman also reports another bonus from her college experience—it inspired her daughter to enroll in Spoon River and pursue a nursing career.

“She thought 'If mom can do it, I can do it,'" Rebman says. 

Curt Bielski talks about his experiences in the Plus 50 program at Ivy Tech.