Baby boomers have “soaked up a lot of economic opportunity without bothering to preserve much for generations to come,” a Washington Post columnist wrote during the last US presidential campaign. As a 62-year-old, soon-to-be-retired boomer myself, my four millennial children often remind me of their similar perspective. And to some extent it’s true: My generation is both great in numbers and in needs. For those reasons, we also have the potential to provide economic and career opportunities for younger generations.
Wisconsin—including the state’s rural northwest region and the district served by Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC), where I work—mirrors the national increase in population and associated needs for individuals age 65 and older. The district where I work, which spans more than 10,600 square miles, includes some of Wisconsin’s poorest and oldest populations. Of its 11 counties, all but one fall below the state’s average per capita income, with three counties among the state’s 10 poorest. Likewise, when compared with the Wisconsin state average of residents age 65 and older (16.1 percent), every WITC county except one exceeds the state percentage, with a range of 12.4 to 30.1 percent of people age 65 and older.
Northwest Wisconsin, like so many rural communities throughout the state and the nation, has the added burden of an inadequate supply of skilled workers to meet the community needs in a variety of work settings. According to the northwest Wisconsin Workforce Investment Board’s 2016 plan, “Many employers in the region have concerns about their inability to recruit and retain both skilled and unskilled workers. The out-migration of youth and competition with urban areas for talent are often the primary concerns that employers voice.”
But there is a bright spot: Careers connected to the aging population provide an opportunity for equity among rural communities. Rather than younger workers leaving the region to pursue better paying jobs, an aging community can create career opportunities that attract and keep the younger generations so that they may remain in the region and ultimately improve the community’s economic health. Many of these careers are in the field of gerontology—the study of aging adults and their associated physiology, psychology, public health, and policy needs. A federal ACT for Healthcare grant has enabled our technical college to develop a gerontology program to serve rural northwestern Wisconsin’s growing boomer population. The associate’s degree in gerontology program includes certificates for community-based residential facilities caregivers, dementia care specialists, and health service providers. Students can enter and exit the program as their educational needs dictate, and on earning a degree, their 60 credits are transferable to four-year university programs.
Most students come with work or personal experiences that compel them to expand their knowledge and skills related to working with the senior population, and the program is designed to meet adult learners' needs. The curriculum is taught either online or via an interactive television broadcast, where students meet for class one evening per week. Students are required to complete two eight-week fieldwork courses in a gerontology-focused setting of their choice.
So how well is it working? In May 2017, all seven of the program’s first associate’s degree graduates were employed in the region. In addition, 19 more students completed one or more of the embedded certificates that have enhanced their skills, and often improved their wage earnings in settings that support older adults. Each of the associate’s degree position pays entry-level wages of at least $20 per hour, which exceeds the district’s average hourly wage of $17.79 and provides a family-sustaining income in the region. Some graduates are employed in traditional direct care and administrative roles at assisted living centers, skilled nursing facilities, and senior community centers. Others design services to meet aging adults’ needs beyond direct care. For example, one graduate was hired to create transportation plans for seniors in several geographically large, yet very rural, communities. Another program graduate, who has an associate’s degree in marketing, was hired as the marketing director for a corporation that manages assisted living facilities.
Understanding the spectrum of aging adults’ needs and finding creative solutions to these challenges is at the core of our gerontology program. Armed with this educational foundation, program graduates can serve our local communities while benefitting from the economic opportunity expanded senior services will bring. Helping meet the specific needs of aging boomers and their families will provide rewarding career paths and service opportunities to the region that would not otherwise be possible. Rather than leave northwest Wisconsin after earning post-secondary credentials, program graduates may now stay and provide professional services. Supported by federal grant funding, the Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College is playing a significant role in improving equity in our district. By creating career and economic growth opportunities in the rural, older, and poorer communities of northwest Wisconsin, we are also improving health of our region’s aging population, thereby strengthening our communities as a whole.
For other communities interested in better serving seniors, and attracting and keeping workers who are skilled in serving this population, there are several items to keep in mind. First, think beyond direct personal care. While this is certainly a need for aging adults, it only represents one aspect of potential job growth for serving a community’s boomer generation. Other industries that can create career paths specific to those over age 65 include financial services, to assist in the transition from the labor market to retirement. Technology services—which promote independent living within unobtrusive, tech-based monitoring—are emerging and have great potential to sustain independence.
Next, collaborate with local post-secondary educational institutions and local employers to develop programming that is specific to gerontology. While not necessarily a requirement, traditionally gerontology programs require a bachelor’s degree. But we have found employers are changing their minimal educational level to an associate degree for leadership roles. Our program is competency-based, and incorporates learning experiences with real clients and employers. Employers need knowledgeable, skilled workers now, and the need is growing. Working with community partners to build the educational foundation will best serve the local need and ultimately benefit the community as a whole.
Any career field that recognizes the specific, growing baby boomer needs within it and finds a solution to fulfill that need will be positioned to create economic growth that supports career opportunities that allow for the community’s younger generations to stay and prosper—particularly in aging rural communities. Expanding and enhancing educational opportunities, like the ones the WITC gerontology program has provided, is an important bedrock to ensure career development is based in the developmental, physiological, and social aspects of community members who are growing older.