September 10, 2009

Recession Pinches a Community College's Effort to Help Baby Boomers

After running her own engineering-software firm with her husband for two decades, Deborah Aguiar-Vélez, 53, was ready for something new. She closed the company's New Jersey office and moved with her family to Charlotte, N.C. With an empty nest and a revamped "virtual" business that did not require her full-time attention, Ms. Aguiar-Vélez says she felt a vague desire to "work on my legacy and figure out what to do with the next 50 years of my life."

Last year, she enrolled in Success to Significance, located at Central Piedmont Community College's Lifelong Learning Institute. The program, one of several at community colleges nationwide for people at midlife preparing for new careers in health care, education, or the environmental or social-service arenas, was supported by a grant from Civic Ventures, a nonprofit group in San Francisco that seeks to attract baby boomers to work on social problems.

In a three-month program that included workshops focused on personal reflection and brainstorming, and one-on-one personal coaching, Ms. Aguiar-Vélez uncovered both the specific desire she had to serve Hispanics like herself and the confidence to pursue it immediately.

Since leaving Success to Significance, she has been meeting with leaders in all the disparate national and ethnic Spanish-speaking groups of greater Charlotte to help them pool resources. She is also planning to start a national nonprofit speaker's bureau for Latina leaders. Her ultimate goal is to improve the visibility and image of Hispanics in American culture.

Program on Hold

But the program that set Ms. Agui­ar-Vélez on her current course has fallen victim to economic pressures. Charlotte, home to the headquarters of Bank of America and Wachovia (which was purchased this year by Wells Fargo), has been hit hard by the global banking crisis.

Until the economy is more stable, the Lifelong Learning Institute has switched its focus and has been offering free seminars to help jobless people handle the more immediate concern of finding employment, rather than the more long-term goal of switching careers. "We hope to get back to the Success to Significance program, and the whole idea of retooling or changing careers," says Lane Luke, a program developer for the institute.

'Best Pathways'

In 2007, Civic Ventures awarded and administered 10 grants of $25,000 each to community colleges. The group gave a new round of 10 grants to 10 more colleges this past March. Both rounds were supported by the MetLife Foundation.

"We decided that community colleges are one of the best pathways to actually connect boomers to encore careers," says Judy Goggin, vice president of Civic Ventures. "They are everywhere, within driving distance of almost any individual in the country. They're accessible, low-cost, flexible, and generally tend to have good connections with local employers."

Ms. Goggin says she is confident that successful programs will be copied, and will be supported by the colleges themselves after their Civic Ventures grants run out.

Additionally, she says, "community colleges are really good at sharing good ideas. They don't compete with each other in the same way as four-year colleges."