A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Forget going back to the office – people are just quitting instead,” examines how the pandemic has changed how we all think about work. The percentage of Americans leaving their jobs for other opportunities is at its highest level in more than two decades, the article states, citing HR experts who predict a massive shift in the next few years as people leave existing jobs and go into other fields.

A large portion of that group will be adults over age 50.

Considering a whole new career after decades about the same job can be an exciting, daunting venture, with unique challenges and rewards. The challenges of training for a new path after age 50 likely will require learning technology skills that will continue to evolve. Older workers can experience age discrimination in the workplace. But that attitude is shifting as employers seek more qualified workers to fill important gaps, said Elena Foshay, director of workforce development for the city of Duluth.

“We have an aging population and a workforce shortage. If they (employers) are not willing to hire someone over age 55, they’re missing out. They can’t afford not to hire that group.”

Nationwide, workers 55 and older will make up 25 percent of the workforce by 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. St. Louis County has a larger aging population than other parts of the country.

“We’re dispelling myths about older workers,” she said. “Are they really more expensive than younger workers? Are they really absent more because of illness or injury? There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings. We’re helping dispel that and educate employers about what older people can bring.”

Besides important work and life experience, older workers offer maturity, patience, persistence and deep level of commitment, said Foshay.

During the pandemic, the Duluth workplace has seen both lay-offs and people leaving by choice. About 2,000-3,000 people have left the workplace by choice, with a large percentage being parents of small children and older adults.

That 50 and older group has been especially hit hard by the pandemic, she said. “They were scared, not working, not going out in the world – so they essentially retired early, but not necessarily with the retirement income they need to get by.”

Historically, there are many reasons why people over age 50 have shifted careers, either by necessity or choice. It could be the job was eliminated, forcing the individual to find another path. Perhaps they were injured or had other health challenges and could no longer work their previous job. Maybe they were out of the workforce for a while and needed to re-enter, like women who did not formerly work but needed to find employment after their children left home or their spouses died and they needed income. Sometimes people retired from one career and still needed extra income to supplement their investments and social security. Or they simply wanted to stay active and contribute to some work in meaningful ways.

In many cases, older workers reach a point they want to keep working but not 40+ hours per week. “They’re great candidates to take on special projects,” said Foshay. “As employers are struggling to hire, that’s one way they (employers) can meet some immediate needs. Bring on people who maybe don’t want to work full time, but still want to be engaged.” Area employers are finally beginning to recognize this opportunity, she said, by creating part-time and special project positions meant to attract older employees. These roles make the employer attractive to people who wouldn’t normally consider working for them. “But there’s a lot more that can be done,” she said.

Duluth’s workforce development office – like many locations around the country – is home to the Department of Labor’s Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). This nationwide program with local offices connects eligible workers age 55 or older with paid internships to develop skills and find meaningful employment. Nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies serve as host sites for temporary, part-time internships, providing a position and the supervision. The internship is paid through a mix of federal and state funding.

“We help them (clients) build employability skills, get them income and get them on track to work in unsubsidized employment,” said Foshay. “While they’re doing that, we’re working with them – case management, helping with barriers to employment. Many move on to unsubsidized jobs.”

Joanne Davidson is a SCSEP graduate who has since found unsubsidized employment. For more than 20 years, she worked as a dietary aide at Chris Jensen in Duluth, until health issues made her job impossible. She left the position in 2013 at age 55, faced with the need of finding a new career track.

“When I quit working, I didn’t have any computer experience,” she said. SCSEP helped her find an internship at SOAR in Duluth, where she gained experience and confidence with computer skills. After the internship ended, she found a job at Home Goods, where she worked as a greeter until the pandemic, and today is training to be a cashier.

“It’s good for your mental health to be in the job market,” she said. “It’s very challenging and very rewarding to go out and meet new people and learn something different. It makes you realize you have a potential and you can do other things. It changes your whole outlook, your well-being. And you know, I find it very rewarding.”

Over the course of a lifetime, finding a job to fit the season of life is important to all individuals, said Leslie Perrett, career counselor with the city of Duluth’s Workforce Development office. At age 55, people may be nearing the end of their careers, she said, but still continue to work for many years, whether for financial or personal reasons.

“We need our community members contributing and actively participating,” she said. “What that looks like for each person changes as seasons change. We all come to the table with whatever skills we have and we make it work.”

Perrett works with clients over age 55, including those in their 70s and 80s who want meaningful employment that fits their needs and abilities. “I have people in their 80s who want to be on SCSEP. They’re dynamic, smart; some have Ph.D.s. They have been contributing to society all their lives, and are not ready to not contribute. They want to remain engaged, mentally or physically, in volunteer or paid work. It helps stimulate us mentally and physically.”

She often talks about transferable skills and crosswalks with her clients. “When you look at jobs in your life, you can see some of those skills and passions you developed and brought with you.” She helps to identify existing skills and interests that people can transfer to a new career path.

As people age, Perrett said, many realize they have limited time and want to focus on what’s most important to them. 

The desire to find meaningful, fulfilling work propelled Duluthian Beth Kaiser to change careers after three decades in church ministry.

“I was floundering … I didn’t know what direction I was going in,” she said. 

In the spring of 2014, Kaiser gave six months notice for her full-time position as director of music at St. Michael’s in Duluth. She did not have a new job lined up, but knew it was time to make a change. She went back to graduate school and also worked as outreach and volunteer coordinator at Victory Chorus, a Duluth organization offering people with dementia and their care partners opportunities to sing together. That role ended with the pandemic. After about a few weeks in lock-down, she knew she needed to do something outside the house. She found a Facebook post seeking companions for Age Well Arrowhead in Duluth, a nonprofit organization that connects older adults and caregivers to services that support healthy aging and independence. When she called about that job, they asked if she would be interested in being a service coordinator. She interviewed and was hired within a week.

“It was a leap of faith,” Kaiser said. “The timing was right. Sometimes that’s a lot of it.” 

It was important to have the support of family and friends, she said, and an employer who believed in her and that her years of experience working in ministry could transfer to her new role. 

“All these skills I’m using in a different way,” she said. “Helping people in crisis, helping people envision a better life. How to have good conversations with people, how to listen, how to care about people.”

Part of Kaiser’s motivation to find a more meaningful career grew from her vision that at age 50, she likely had 25 years left to work. “I couldn’t imagine being in a job I didn’t love. At this stage of the game, I need to be authentic. Life shouldn’t be a nail biter. We shouldn’t have to go through life grinning and bearing it.” 

For those considering a career change past 50, Kaiser had this advice: “Make it something that feeds your heart and soul.”