Leaping back into the job market at different stages of life

(Ross Macdonald for The Boston Globe)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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After years of constant travel for her job as a public relations consultant, Maureen MacGregor wanted a different kind of satisfaction and more time at home with her husband and teenage children. In September, she enrolled in a community college program to become a sleep technologist.

Today, nearly a week from graduation, MacGregor has a job with Brighton-based Sleep HealthCenters, where she will administer tests and monitor patients in local clinics to help doctors diagnose sleep disorders.

“It was a real smooth transition for me,’’ said MacGregor, 55, of Manchester-by-the-Sea. “I’m really lucky, I know that.’’

MacGregor’s experience not only provides an example that the long freeze in hiring has begun to thaw, but also demonstrates what is needed to succeed in today’s ultracompetitive job market. Matching skills to opportunities is the key, said career specialists, and for many workers that means training and education.

How workers acquire new skills or update old ones will often depend on their ages.

For young workers, with fewer responsibilities and decades until retirement, graduate school and a second degree might provide the avenue to a new career. For older workers, with families to support, college tuition to pay, and retirement on the horizon, a better answer might be short-term training that gets them to work quickly.

The process begins with self-assessment, career specialists said. Workers should ask “What are my skills? My interests? How much time and money can I invest in retraining?’’ Another important question: “What do I want?’’ It could be more money, more time with family, or greater fulfillment, career specialists said.

“What we see a lot is ‘I have no clue,’ ’’ said Charles Diggs, director of enrollment services at Northern Essex Community College, with campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence. “What we really try to do is have some conversations about who you are and where you’re going and how you get there.’’

After missing too many flights and too many family events, MacGregor began pondering her career change, focusing on health care and “really helping people one-on-one in some meaningful way.’’ She took courses in physiology, anatomy, and chemistry, and considered nursing before enrolling in the sleep technologist program at Northern Essex.

“It’s one thing to do PR in your 30s,’’ she said. “It’s another thing to be stuck at Heathrow Airport because you missed your flight, and look around and go, ‘Oh, I’m too old for this. I have a son with a football game tomorrow. I need to be home.’ ’’

While more than 300,000 workers remain un employed in Massachusetts, the job market has begun to show signs of life. Massachusetts employers have added nearly 12,000 jobs since February and the state unemployment rate fell in March for the first time in almost three years, to 9.3 percent.

Several employment sectors are expected to experience strong growth over the next few years, according to the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

They include biotechnology, computer system design and management, and science and technology consulting. Education, health care, and other life sciences also offer opportunities for a variety of skills and positions.

Joanne F. Goldstein, state secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, said workers should do as much as they can to investigate occupations that catch their interest, including talking to people in the field.

A good place to start: one of the state’s 37 One-Stop Career Centers.

The centers provide a variety of services, from resume writing for young workers just entering the job market to skills assessments for midcareer job changers. They offer workshops and free online services through the state’s JobQuest website

It’s still tough for job seekers, Goldstein said, but many are finding ways to reinvent themselves.

“In some ways it is a good time to change tracks, because people are being creative and thinking more about the opportunities that exist in other fields,’’ said Goldstein. “Obviously, making a career change or staying put is dependent on many factors: a person’s age, skill sets, their interest and ability to obtain further education, and all those things.’’

There are many options for updating skills, from degree programs, which can take years, to certificate programs, which can take months, to training programs that can be completed in weeks. Worcester Polytechnic Institute, for example, offered a 10-week program designed to help 68 employees laid off from Polaroid Corp. put their chemical and industrial skills to work in biotech manufacturing.

“There was both a skill set transition and a psychological transition,’’ Stephen Flavin, WPI’s dean of corporate and professional education, said of the Polaroid program. “These were people who had been pretty focused in their career and here they are going to an entirely different environment, a very new environment.’’

About 70 percent of the Polaroid workers found new jobs, Flavin said. Meanwhile, WPI has retooled the program to help workers from other industries transfer skills to jobs in life sciences. Employers are often reluctant to commit to permanent, full-time employees in the early stages of a recovery, but a long-term trend is also at work, according to Laurence J. Stybel, executive in residence at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School. He said companies increasingly rely on contract workers rather than permanent hires.

“What I tell my clients is that there are certain four-letter words you don’t use in polite company, and one of them is, ‘jobs,’ ’’ said Stybel. “You don’t say you’re looking for jobs. You say assignments, you say projects. Keep it open-ended and flexible.’’