If it's true that there are no second acts in American life, then the baby boomers currently enrolled in community colleges around the country never got the memo. In the early '90s, after the nuclear power plant where he worked shut down, Roger Mooberry, 57, of Longview, Wash., earned an associate's degree from nearby Lower Columbia College, then took a job at Intel making semiconductors. Last year, when he found himself unemployed again, he returned to LCC, this time enrolling in a program to train workers for high-tech jobs in the pulp and paper industry. "The skills I'm learning will help me open doors even at my age," says Mooberry. "And I'll need that because retirement just isn't in my vocabulary."
For workers like Mooberry, community colleges are an accessible and affordable way to reinvent themselves. These days, about 1, 200 colleges around the country offer full- and part-time students two-year degrees and job training. While the campuses tend to be no frills, the entrance requirements are minimal and tuition is a bargain compared with the stratospheric costs of a four-year university. Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, says most community colleges have strong ties with local industries and offer courses that help workers (and the companies that hire them) meet the needs of a changing economy. Currently, about 1 million boomers are retooling at community colleges around the country. As more and more people decide they won't or can't retire, says Kent, "we expect an even greater number of boomers to end up at our door."
Paul Bradford, 49, of Jackson, Ala., enrolled in community college as a kind of insurance policy. Seventeen years ago, when he took a job as a paper-machine operator at Boise Cascade, a paper company, he quickly realized that buyouts, consolidations and plant closings in his industry were not the exception, but the rule. While he enjoyed his job, he worried about the future. So recently, when Boise offered to send him to Alabama Southern Community College to train as a mechanic, he jumped at the chance. Bradford says that while he doesn't expect his plant to close, "you never really know." If it does, he's confident his new skills would help him find a job in another industry.
Sometimes community college can help people fulfill old dreams. Laura Mysliwiec, 51, of Hyannis, Mass., worked as a waitress at a local Sheraton hotel for the last 20 years. She likes her work, but she couldn't imagine toting 40-pound trays in her 60s and 70s. A few years ago she started taking courses at Cape Cod Community College (CCCC). Now, with a newly minted degree in communications, she's looking for a job in events planning and public relations. She's optimistic about her career prospects, she says. "I learn quickly, I'm very creative and I'm a hard worker."
Community colleges are also helping some boomers discover late-life passions. Robert Miselis, 59, raised his family on a dairy farm in upstate New York before selling it and moving to Cape Cod to be near his grown sons. Last month, he received a nursing degree from CCCC and is already working at a local hospital. Miselis knew the nurse shortage in his area was acute. "Three different people at my gym suggested I give it a try," he says. Though it was hard to study when he knew his retired buddies were skiing in Maine, the transition from milking to healing has been a smooth one. "At this age," he says, "the point is to try to stay happy, lively and interested." His new degree and new career are helping him do just that.