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Andrea Wooten
Andrea Wooten

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High Tech Jobs for Older Workers
Feature Story - by Kathryn Crawford

Sarena Jordan and son Herbert. At 67 years old, Sarena Jordan is thinking about her next career move. After years of working as a community organizer and office manager, among other things, she wants to learn about computers.

Despite having reached retirement age, Jordan is going back to school with the help of Green Thumb, a non-profit organization committed to bringing older Americans back into the workforce, and the Microsoft Skills 2000 initiative, which is aimed at reducing the growing shortage of skilled information technology workers.

"I've had a diverse career and there's no sense stopping now," said Jordan, who was the first black woman president of her school system's PTA in Baltimore, Md. "I've still got my health and my strength. I intend to never stop learning - and I have a lot to offer."

Once trained, Jordan may find herself in high demand. Fast-growing companies are scrambling to find skilled information technology (IT) workers - with job titles ranging from support specialists to network or database administrators and software developers.

Some 346,000 IT jobs are currently vacant in mid-size and large U.S. companies, according to the Information Technology Association of America. In fact, employers will be looking for more than 1 million new IT workers in the next seven years, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates.

Microsoft, Green Thumb and the federal government have teamed up to get low-income older workers - defined as 55 and older - up and running in an effort to close the gap between the skyrocketing number of IT jobs and the lack of skilled people to fill them.

That pool of older workers is largely untapped, organizers say. And in the IT industry, which uses technology that has only existed for a few years, a person's age is insignificant. "It's part of dispelling myths about that population pool," said Karen Steckler, the Microsoft Skills 2000 group manager. "The way technology changes, even if an older person is only part of the workforce for five years, that is still really rich. We're all going to see a return on that investment."

More than Beautifying Highways
Green Thumb, based in Arlington, Va., was founded in 1965 to put retired farmers to work beautifying highways and rest stops and "keep people productive," said Andrea Wooten, Green Thumb president and CEO. "It's pretty much mushroomed over the years."

The organization currently assists some 40,000 people across the country each year with re-training, counseling, and job placement. Nearly 75 percent of Green Thumb participants are women.

The goal of the Skills 2000/Green Thumb alliance is to bring new people into the computer industry by training low-income, older people to become Microsoft Certified Professionals. "We want these people to know the software well enough to help others learn it, to be able to troubleshoot, and to be able to implement it in an organization," Wooten said.

And the compensation is nothing to sneeze at. Although starting salaries depend on the employee's experience and skills, the average salary for an entry-level Microsoft Certified Professional is $61,200, according to MCP Magazines' 1998 salary survey.

The initiative, which will initially operate in Sacramento, Ca.; Baltimore; and Austin, Texas, will eventually include dislocated workers - people who have been laid off and downsized - as well as people on welfare. It is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and matching local funds. Microsoft Authorized Technical Education Centers will train participants and Microsoft will donate all the training materials.

Teaching New Tricks
The challenge lies in fighting biases and stereotypes about older people, Wooten explained. Many organizations feel that older workers don't have anything more to contribute - that they can't learn new skills or that they' ll get sick or retire soon anyway. The old cliché, "you can't teach an old dog new tricks," couldn't be farther from the truth.

With people living longer and healthier, a 55-year-old may have years of productivity ahead of him or her. "There's a stigma about older people, and a lot of employers don't want to invest in them," Wooten said. "But a lot of older people want to keep contributing."

Older workers may also have a different work ethic than their younger counterparts, Wooten added. "When you invest in an older person, that person will stay longer. They have a different value system - they are not interested in job hopping, and they're loyal to the end."

Visit the Green Thumb Web Site

And older workers bring maturity and life experience to the workplace. "These people may have business experience or just more world experience, as well as life skills," Microsoft manager Steckler said. "It's a very good marriage."

Scott Bird could be a poster child for the Green Thumb/Skills 2000 alliance. At age 72, after retiring as a small-business consultant, he decided it was high time to start a new career. He is now a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and Microsoft Certified Trainer.

"What an opportunity this is for the growing numbers of early and restless retirees," Bird said. "If I can do it, they certainly can."
© 1998 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Terms of Use. Last Updated: February 03, 1998