76 percent of students are age 40 and older
by: Cliff Newell, 
The Age Boom Conference at Portland Community College let Oregonians know you don’t have to be young to desire an education — or a new career. Getting the message out were, from left, Barbara Dibs, Joyce DeMonnin, Linda Wiener, Jan Abushakrah and Nan Poppe.

When Barbara Dibs returned to school to study for a new career at age 50, she discovered something quite surprising.

'I didn't know I was a senior learner until I looked around,' said Dibs. 'I was one of the 76 percent.'

That 76 percent figure refers to the number of students at Portland Community College classified in the 'senior' age division (age 40 and older), and with the release of three new reports by PCC and AARP, the huge number of Oregon senior students knocking on the door of higher education will no longer be a surprise.

The unveiling came at the 'Age Boom' conference on Feb. 28 at the PCC Sylvania Campus, and at a special press conference, event organizers predicted that the reports would result in drastically changing the landscape for senior students in Oregon.

'This survey is stunning,' said Linda Wiener, an AARP consultant and workforce specialist. 'It shows what is happening in the workforce.'

'We are very committed to our 10,000 to 15,000 students over the age of 40,' said Nan Poppe, president of PCC's Campus for Extended Learning. 'This is part of a national trend for re-training and re-careering for senior students.

'Most important, this report shows how colleges need to serve older students to assure that this region has qualified workers.'

The big reason the words 'stunning' and 'startling' were used to describe the impact of this report was that it was not truly known until recently how many senior students there were at PCC, even by people who worked closely with senior citizens.

Joyce DeMonnin, AARP Oregon Director of Public Outreach, compiled an outstanding record as a senior citizen advocate when she was director of Elder Safe in Washington County. Yet DeMonnin admitted she was surprised when a PCC senior student organization called the Wisdom Keepers sought her help in raising the profile of the plight of students in the 40-plus age bracket.

Initially reluctant to grant the group $300 to print flyers, DeMonnin was so impressed by the result of their survey that eventually AARP devoted $3,000 to print and distribute nationwide a study of senior students.

'I would use the word 'staggering' to describe what the survey shows,' DeMonnin said. 'Seventy-six percent of the students are here to re-career.

'This has macro application to the state of Oregon. Policymakers are not aware of this issue.'

DeMonnin predicts the reports will give everyone a 'Gee Whiz look' at what is happening in Oregon's workforce. She said, 'It has huge implications for this state.'

While the Age Boom report provides riveting information on the numbers, and need for, senior workers, there are still challenges. Employers will still need convincing.

'Ageism still exists,' said Helen Dennis, a judge for AARP's 'Best Employer' competition. 'A real schism exists when it comes to hiring seniors. This report provides evidence that counters this thinking. But this is not a logical issue.'

As for big business, 'We have a huge challenge in integrating aging in corporate management training.'

Still, when it comes to hiring senior citizens, Dennis said, 'We are far ahead of where we were five or 10 years ago.'

Dr. Jan Abushakrah, PCC Gerontology Program Chair and organizer of the conference, said the three studies would bring an 'epiphany' about senior students.

'It's stunning,' she said. 'It's a quick read, but it's really revealing. They're not just coming for life enrichment. It's about livelihood. Four out of five of them want to re-skill and re-career.

'Senior students are flocking to courses which fit them for the complexities of adult life.'

Noting that senior students and workers had to overcome some strong stereotypes, Abushakrah said, 'Older workers are not a problem. They're a tremendous resource. They can actually be a solution to Oregon's labor problem.'

Although it will take time for the Age Boom reports to result in new policies, Dennis said, 'We have all of the talent we need to make it happen and put dollars and muscle behind the effort.'

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