Eyeing an Encore Career? Expect a Bumpy Transition

SmartMoney

Bill Gates has one. So does Al Gore. Each man has embraced an encore career -- work in later life that's personally fulfilling, contributes to the greater good and generates income. (Although I assume the last isn't top of mind for Gates.) If you're considering a similar path, new research and developments point to reason for concern -- and optimism.

The notion of encore careers (the term was made popular by Marc Freedman, head of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco think tank) has been percolating now for some time. But several factors today are prompting more people to pursue such jobs: undersize nest eggs, increased longevity, a desire to tackle society's ills and, in many cases, an urge to find a different kind of life.

Mark Noonan, 59, lives in Portland, Ore. Eight years ago, he lost his wife in an accident. In his grief, he began reflecting on what he wanted to do going forward. For 30 years, he had worked as an engineer for a series of high-tech companies, jobs that were "financially, but not personally, rewarding," he told me recently. Today, Noonan is a manager at Elders in Action, a Portland nonprofit that helps older adults secure health care and housing, among other needs. "Every single day, I feel like I have a positive impact on a person's life," he says. His journey, though, was decidedly bumpy. Almost two years passed before he landed full-time work -- a period filled with doubts ("Will I be able to make a living wage?") and uncomfortable lessons ("With most nonprofits, the culture is very different from for-profits"). On the plus side: Community college classes and some internships steered him to his current position.

Those experiences reflect the bad news -- and the good news -- on the front lines. First, new research from Civic Ventures shows that the transition from midlife work to an encore career can be costly and time-consuming. Of the estimated 9 million Americans already in encore careers, two-thirds had gaps in personal income during the transition. (Almost one in four reported earning no money.) Job searches, on average, lasted 18 months; some 34 percent said the process took more than two years. Some searches drag on because of the shaky economy, says Jim Emerman, executive vice president at Civic Ventures. Even so, "it's distressing," he adds, "to think it could take that long to find your footing."

But growing interest in encore careers, and a growing recognition of the importance of such jobs, means more resources are becoming available to help people make the leap. Consider these:

Schools

Some of the top universities in the country are now guiding older students into the nonprofit arena. At Harvard, the Advanced Leadership Initiative invites late-career professionals to spend nearly a year on campus and then asks them to develop a "social-purpose project" to address problems at the local, national or global level. Community colleges, too, are stepping up. Since 2008, the Plus 50 Initiative, a program launched by the American Association of Community Colleges, has been helping older adults find employment. Now, new grant money may help provide as many as 10,000 students in 100 community colleges with job training, degrees and certificates in health care, education and social service fields -- areas that are often good fits for encore careers.

Fellowships

Paid internships are normally associated with young adults. The Encore Fellowships Network, started by Civic Ventures in 2009 and now expanding nationwide, applies the same idea to baby boomers. With funding from private foundations and employers, participants are matched with a nonprofit, where they work six to 12 months and receive stipends of $20,000 to $35,000. The hands-on experience, says Emerman, helps ease concerns among would-be employers "that you don't have anything on your r sum in the nonprofit sector."

Entrepreneurs

Yes, you can try to get your foot in the door of an existing nonprofit or business venture that meets a community need -- or perhaps you can start your own. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's annual survey of entrepreneurial activity in the U.S. points to a rising share of new entrepreneurs among people ages 55 to 64. In 1996, this demographic represented 14.3 percent of new entrepreneurs; in 2011, the figure climbed to 20.9 percent, marking the largest jump in any of the age groups measured.

None of this is to say that pursuing an encore career isn't -- pick a word -- difficult, intimidating, exhausting. In fact, it's all those things at one point or another, says Paul Rigel, 57, who lives outside Lake Wales, Fla. And then comes the payoff. A former minister, Rigel returned to college at age 54 to get his teaching certificate and build a new life. Now, he spends his days instructing middle schoolers on the finer points of agriculture and environmental science, among other electives. A recent high point: planting vegetable gardens and watching a young, cabbage-averse student eat (and actually enjoy) a helping of broccoli and brussels sprouts. "Am I ever scared? Yes. Sometimes every day," Rigel told me. But working with children and having an influence in their lives has been more than worth it: "This is a great adventure."

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