When Aharon Dagan turned 50, he was ready to give up the AAMCO Transmission dealership he owned.
“I realized it wasn’t my calling,” he says. “I reflected on everything I had done, and one of the things I enjoyed most was teaching when I was younger.”
Dagan had taught for a couple years in his native Israel before coming the University of Florida for graduate work in engineering and eventually opening his business.
The decision to get back into education has paid off. Dagan now teaches math at Santa Fe College and he says, “I start every day with a celebration. I’m amazed that I get paid to do what I love.”
Dagan is among a growing number of workers who are switching careers in their late 40s and early 50s.
Some career-changers are people who retired early from their former professions, says Paul Hutchins, the dean of education centers at Santa Fe College and the director of the college’s outreach programs for students over 50. They return to school to prepare for new careers because they “have a void they need to fill,” Hutchins says. “They need activity as a way to give back to business and industry.”
In other cases, changing circumstances such as being laid off prompts the workers to take a new path.
Whatever the motivation, these older career-changers generally flourish in their new professions, says Hutchins.
“They bring maturity and expertise to the job,” Hutchins says. “They have time-tested skills and values.”
Programs at Santa, UF and Florida Works
UF, Santa Fe and FloridaWorks help older students switch careers. Dagan turned to UF for his study and obtained a master’s in education. He taught high school math for two years then served as an adjunct professor at Santa Fe before joining the faculty full-time.
For Tanya Dvorak, Santa Fe was also a good match.
Dvorak had worked with her husband in his machine shop for 20 years, then he became ill and had to close it down.
“I was afraid that I would end up working at Walmart,” she says. Instead, she learned new skills and today, at age 50, she’s a graphic designer in the University of Florida’s Counseling & Wellness Center.
Dvorak credits Santa Fe College’s Displaced Homemaker Program with helping her make the mid-life career change. Participants must be at least 35 and have lost access to income from someone else upon which they have depended.
The program not only provided Dvorak with training in computer skills, but also helped prepare her for finding a job. “I had to learn about creating an online resume,” she says. [Instructor JoAnn Wilkes] “helped me write out questions I anticipated being asked in an interview. I had the questions and their answers with me when I went into the interview.”
Getting used to the pace of the workplace was a challenge—but in a good way. “I wasn’t used to taking breaks and having a lunch hour,” she says.
For Milton Mansfield, health problems led to his career change. In 2008, he developed a brain tumor, followed by colon cancer and a recurrence of leukemia. He went into a coma and dropped from 225 pounds to 150.
As he recovered, Mansfield became restless. “I was willing to do anything to get out of the house,” he says.
He no longer had the stamina to handle his previous job delivering the Florida Times-Union and doing home remodeling. So Mansfield joined the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which is administered through FloridaWorks.
The program provided him with a job assisting patients at Davis Cancer Center at Shands at UF. A Florida Department of Elder Affairs grant paid his salary for 20 hours of work weekly.
After a year and a half in that job, Mansfield went into business on his own as a caregiver. Now he helps a patient who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Programs for Older Students
FloridaWorks senior employment program provides salary and training for 73 people at a time, says
program manager Jessica Baker. Applicants must be at least 55 and have low income.
Most training is for jobs people can move into relatively quickly, she says. “It’s wonderful that they can get used to going to a work setting and restore their confidence,” she says. “They often have a strong work ethic and a great skill set.”
Santa Fe attracts older students through its Plus 50 Initiative. The program promotes available training while outreach includes a career-changers fair and open houses in various departments.
The program is funded by a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education.
In the past year, more than 2,800 students older than 50 have attended Santa Fe, and 83 of them have earned associate’s degrees.
Many of the older students focus on careers for which they can qualify relatively quickly, including ones in the medical field, says Scott Fortner, an advising specialist for Santa Fe’s Health Sciences Counseling Office. For example, being certified to do sonograms only takes one year of study and brings starting salaries as high as $45,000.
The quick step to a job is important, says grant coordinator Betsy Albury. “Many of these older workers need to keep working,” she says. “They
can’t afford to retire.”