Charles S. Shepherd III rides his bicycle to school, a blue book-bag slung over his shoulder. With a three-ring-binder and a workbook by his side, he works for hours on end at the computer. He spends his evenings studying at the computer or watching television from bed.
He's just like the average student, except for one thing: He is 53 years old.
Shepherd has been placed in classes through Howard County Employment and Training. He is one of hundreds of clients the agency works with each year who must learn new computer skills or update old ones as they shift into a new career or go back to work after several years.
"This is all new to me," Shepherd said while studying databases in class at Howard Community College recently. "But I'm developing a healthy respect for what they went through in developing this stuff."
Cheryl Queen, marketing co- ordinator with Employment and Training, said that about 600 people came to the office seeking services this fiscal year. Of those, about 400 were deemed eligible for the agency's program. (Those eligible include veterans, people who have been laid off or are out of work or meet other criteria.) Of the 400, slightly more than 300 - including Shepherd - sought specialized skill training.
For many clients, the training is a much-needed bridge between the old and new economies. Shepherd sought more training with the hope that it would be his way out of a job building satellites and into the kind of job that requires a shirt and tie - the kind of job he longs for.
"If you're going to work, you might as well go for the gusto," he said.
But achieving his goals will not be easy. Short on money, Shepherd lives in a friend's spare bedroom in Columbia and rides his bike to school. Finding a part-time job to help pay for college, he said, seems impossible.
Shepherd knows he wants a desk job, yet his goals pull him in several directions. And he is back in school, though he had never been much of a student.
Since March, Shepherd has been taking a self-paced class on databases at Howard Community College. In the course, paid for by Employment and Training, he shares a classroom with others who are looking for new jobs and want new skills, and with college-age students and senior citizens who want continuing education, said one of his teachers, Cathy Sutton.
Today, Shepherd also begins a six-month training program at Catonsville Community College. The CAD/CAM 2000 Project will teach him about computer-aided manufacturing and put him one step closer to his dream of a white-collar job.
But days will be long. Classes at the two colleges will overlap through part of August. Shepherd will rely on the bus and his bicycle to travel between schools and a $100 monthly stipend from CAD/CAM 2000, a state-funded program, to cover the rest of his expenses.
He has been out of work since January, when his temporary job working for the U.S. Census Bureau ended. Ted Barnes, his workforce consultant, said Shepherd is smart, earning A's and B's in school and scoring the highest grade possible on the agency's standardized test used to gauge clients' reading and math levels. Shepherd has worked before - pumping gas, doing odd jobs, working construction, and servicing radio and television towers. He says he wants a more intellectually challenging part-time job and can't find one.
Originally from Alexandria, Va., Shepherd dropped out of high school when repeating his senior year. "I had never learned how to study," said Shepherd, whose reading level in his early 20s was equal to that of a fourth-grader.
In 1967, he enlisted in the Army and served in 1968 and 1969 in Vietnam. He passed his GED in the military, and in 1976, enrolled in Prince George's Community College.
Three years later, he withdrew from school to resume active duty with his Army Reserve unit. He went on to an apprenticeship, and eventually a job, manufacturing parts for satellites at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, he said. But he was working with his hands, not the kind of work he wanted. "I was nowhere, going nowhere," he said.
So he quit to go back to school, and these days, Shepherd is, more than anything, a professional student. He estimates he is about 15 credits shy of his college degree, studying at Montana State University from 1994 to 1996 and at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1996-97.
He continues training on the computers that he hopes will someday be a tool in his career, despite the complexities of the machines less familiar to many of his generation. "I really get into this stuff," he said. "I'm just not that good at it yet."
Ultimately, Shepherd hopes to earn a master's degree in library science, but for now, computer-aided manufacturing has, as Barnes says, "captured his imagination."
"This is going to redirect Charles," Barnes said.