Balto. Co. program gives older workers second chance

Paula Foertsch wasn't ready to be forced into retirement at age 60.

An office supervisor, Foertsch started looking for ways to start her second act shortly after she was laid off in January 2009. She'd always been interested in doing medical billing.

Her timing couldn't have been better. Baltimore County was launching Maturity Works, a custom health care job training program for people age 55 and up, part of a nationwide effort to prepare older employees for the new workplace and meet regional employment needs.

"It gives us a chance to go and continue to work competitively, show that we are mature and have something to offer, and that we can work in this new environment," Foertsch said.

Health and medicine are big business in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Four of the county's top 10 employers are medical-related, including Franklin Square Hospital Center, Greater Baltimore Medical Center and St. Joseph Medical Center. It's one of the few sectors to not only survive but modestly thrive during the economic downturn. And older workers are an underutilized resource due to misconceptions about ability and productivity levels.

"We wanted to find jobs that would allow them to make a living wage. We wanted them to be able to go through a fairly short-term training period," said Edward J. Fangman, the county's workforce development chief. "We were looking for areas that would be cost-effective from our point of view and get people back to work."

According to the Baltimore Alliance for Careers in Healthcare, almost 25 percent of the state's health care jobs are in the Baltimore area. Ronald Hearn, the group's executive director, said there's robust demand for positions like medical coding specialists and surgical technicians. The market for surgical technicians, for instance, is expected to grow 45 percent in the next two years.

The Community College of Baltimore County serves as the primary training provider as students take courses to prepare them to become medical records clerks, patient account representatives, and take advantage of other entry-level health care support jobs.

Ten municipalities in 10 states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Texas, received $10 million in federal grants to implement similar initiatives, focusing on industries like accounting and financial services, administrative support, green construction, transportation and energy.

By 2016, the number of older workers nationwide is expected to increase by 36.5 percent, a higher rate of growth than for younger workers.

Many of them need to work, said Stephen Sweet, who's done research for the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College.

"Many older workers really need to have full-time jobs to maintain their standard of living and to recoup the investments they have lost in their retirement accounts as the economy turned down," said Sweet, also an assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College.

But older workers tend to encounter discrimination and may have more trouble finding jobs that match their skills, he added.

"Older Americans oftentimes are looking for something very different from their jobs than younger workers," he said. "They may be looking for greater amounts of flexibility and see working as being a second or third act."

Health care can be a good fit, he said, since opportunities are likely to expand as baby boomers age, and the jobs offer good pay and a high degree of job satisfaction.

Maturity Works recruited 100 people last July. Approximately 70 started the training; 40 completed it. Another 20 are expected to finish by next summer. Officials are looking for another 100 to go through the training.

In many ways, older students are like their younger peers, said program supervisor Varvara Kymbriti. They have to be reminded to show up on time and that they can't drop classes without formal notification.

But they sometimes need more encouragement, Kymbriti said.

"It seems when they come close to the end, they become very fearful," she said. "Some might drop out when they're taking their last class. You have to watch and monitor them very closely."

Years earlier, Foertsch, the former officer supervisor, had made up her mind to pay her own way through courses at CCBC to get back into billing and coding when county workforce representatives approached her about Maturity Works.

"It made me really want to be a student and make them see they made a good choice in selecting me," she said.

Now, the woman who once dreamed of becoming a nurse is on her way to another career in a health care setting, working as a unit secretary at a local hospital.

Programs like Maturity Works are valuable from an employer's standpoint, said Deborah Rowe, senior director of Genesis HealthCare, who works in the Towson office. "At Genesis, we employ over 39,000 employees. Avenues like this enable us to have people who are trained and better match jobs with job-seekers. We can't do it in isolation. We rely on [county] workforce development to let us know about opportunities and trainings so we can do our job and employ people in the community."

While Foertsch was picking up where she left off, Berthena Artis wanted to learn a new skill in a comfortable environment. Participants take many of their classes together and practice going through mock interviews.

"There's no intimidation," said Artis, an Owings Mills resident who, at 55 years old, is one of the youngest participants. "You're not snickered or giggled at."

She will complete her training this month and encourages others to use their age to their advantage.

"Don't let age be a hindrance," she said. "It's not a deficit."


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