A group of Baltimore-area senior citizens is about to become what many hope is the wave of the future: older workers armed with information-technology skills.
Two dozen low-income seniors will graduate today from a six-week pilot program that, if successful, has prepared them to pass a test to become Microsoft "certified professionals." That would allow them to apply for jobs in network administration and help-desk support that typically pay $20,000 to $30,000 annually.
The Commerce Department predicts that more than 1 million new information-technology workers will be needed in the next seven years. And with unemployment at a 28-year low, the industry has turned to the rapidly growing elderly population. Fifteen percent of Maryland's population is over age 60, and that is expected to rise to 23 percent by 2020.
The program was administered through Green Thumb Inc., a national nonprofit organization that provides job training to low-income and older adults with a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and course materials donated by Microsoft Corp.
The program was also tried in California and Texas. If it works, it will be used nationwide and could be a model for welfare-to-work programs.
Mike Toht, special projects manager at Green Thumb, said it is difficult for people who have been out of the work force for an extended period, or who have never been in it all, to become familiar with the technological changes of recent years.
"We had people here for training who still think there are receptionist jobs where you smile and greet people and make coffee," he said. "They didn't realize those receptionists are now doing data entry. This allows people to get into the work force with fresh credentials."
The free training was open to those 55 and older whose incomes were 125 percent of the poverty level or lower. They were not required to have college or high school degrees, but they did need familiarity with computers. The 24 participants were chosen from 120 applicants.
Ming Pei, two months shy of 74, was a math teacher in China before she moved to the United States in 1989. She said she took the class because she never had a good understanding of how computers function even though she has worked with them.
She laughed at the idea of jumping into the job market after the class. She is just trying to digest everything she learned.
"All the instructors are very knowledgeable, and I think they've done a very good job, but it's so much information to absorb," she said. "You cannot expect me to just go out and do it, but this is a really good foundation."
Jim Eatherly, another participant, said he has been tinkering with computers for 15 years but that the hobby hasn't landed him a job.
"You can't just go in and tell someone, 'I know this and I know that.' Once you get the certificate, you show them that you have that knowledge," said Eatherly, 57, whose experience includes restaurant management and property maintenance.
After today's graduation ceremony at the Holiday Inn on Lombard Street, the students will receive three extra training days to prepare for the certification test, which they schedule independently. They are also invited to an information-technology job fair the state's Professional Outplacement Assistance Center will hold July 10.
David Wagner, an economist at the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, said the Green Thumb program sounds promising.
"It gives [seniors] another industry in which they can compete for jobs. And it's beneficial for companies because of the costs associated with training employees," he said. "They would be entering their jobs with previous real-world experience, and that's an added bonus."
Andrea Wooten, president of Green Thumb, said seniors tend to be loyal employees.
"If the company treats them fairly and invests in them, they'll stay," she said.
Pub Date: 6/26/98