Education, training and the road back to work at 55

Single mom. dislocated worker, grandmother, “nontraditional college student.”

That was Deb Mason’s shorthand on her life as she told us about her journey from laid off auto dealership employee to soon-to-be college graduate. It’s been a hard road — one that many 50-and-older workers in Minnesota know too well in this recession.

minnecon.smallicon.gifA source in MPR’s Public Insight Network from West St. Paul, Mason pushed herself to regroup and retrain. We wanted to tell her story because it captures so many things we’re seeing in this recession among people 50 and older.

Mason, 55, says she was laid off October 21 last year after 15 years in auto dealerships. She wasn’t surprised given the industry’s problems. She asked her bosses if they thought the layoff would last long. “The response I got was, ‘If I were you I would start looking for a new job, things don’t look good for coming back soon… if ever.'”

I immediately came home applied online for unemployment and signed up for the next dislocated worker meeting in Dakota county. The room was packed.

Three weeks after I was laid off I was in a car accident and my car was totaled. Unfortunately I had canceled my full coverage insurance two days before in an effort to cut down expenses. So after paying full coverage for 30 years I now needed it and did not have it. I found that a little ironic.

My 401K had shrunk to barely anything so I cashed it in and bought a different car ( also added full coverage back on) I took some computer Excel classes to update my skills. Applied for numerous jobs, redid resume several times, emailed it to numerous places even ones I did not qualify for.

In a year I have only had three interviews, but no job as I did not have the degree they wanted. Experience did me no good as once I said automobile… they sort of stepped back.

What has worked? School.

Mason says she’d always wanted a degree but earlier in life could never could go. Suddenly, she found the things she did well wouldn’t deliver the next job.

“I can title a vehicle in any state and nearly every country, I can keep inventory of over 1000 vehicles, balance schedules and process loans but I could not land a job close to what I was making.”

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for minnecon.debmason.JPGOut of work, she enrolled in the ASAP program at Inver Hills Community College. It’s focused on adults hoping to earn a two-year degree at an accelerated pace.

School’s gone well. She made the dean’s list and became involved in Inver Hills’ student life. She expects to graduate by summer’s end and hopes to go into “social work similar to the dislocated worker program as it has been such a good thing for me and others.”

Mason says she thinks there are lots of people in the same boat. We’ve seen it, too.

Many older workers have lost jobs and seen retirement plans torpedoed. Others are dealing with setbacks they never faced when they were younger. Nationally, more than 2 million people aged 55 and older were out of work in June, the biggest number since the feds began collecting data in 1949, according to the AARP.

School has been one answer. We’ve seen jumps in older students in Minnesota. A recent AARP survey found one in six people over 50 planning to return to school with nearly half returning to sharpen job skills.

Finding a job remains the ultimate goal for Mason in this journey. But she says:

I have decided to look at unemployment as a step toward the future. I got tired of being depressed. I enjoy the time with the grandkids and keep very busy between jobs hunting, school and family. I am glad the (federal unemployment benefits extension) bill passed as my extension was due to run out by Feb. The job market maybe will be better by then.