By Mark Miller

If you train for it, the jobs will come.

That's the upshot of a new economic study that attempts to answer one of the toughest questions facing mid-life Americans: Will training for a new career pay off in a recession-wracked economy?

It's a critical question for workers in their 50s and early 60s, who've been laid off, forced to postpone retirement by the post-crash economy -- and for those who never really wanted to retire anyway.

Economist Barry Bluestone of Northeastern University in Boston was asked to provide an answer by Civic Ventures, a non-profit dedicated to advancing midlife transitions to careers in the non-profit sector, teaching, government and other areas of public service.

His new report projects overall labor force needs for the coming decade, and he came up with a surprising finding: the U.S. may face a labor shortage in key social sector jobs. In "After the Recovery: Help Needed," Bluestone predicts that within the next eight years there could be at least five million job vacancies in the United States, nearly half of them in social sector jobs in education, health care, government and non-profit organizations.

Going further, Bluestone identified the 15 job categories likely to experience the fastest growth for encore careerists.

The optimistic forecast might be hard to believe at a time when we're all looking up from the bottom of a deep recession. But Bluestone bases his findings on well-accepted long-range projections from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics -- and on his own expectation that the our labor force is about to undergo a radical makeover.

Even if boomers retire at the same rate and age as previous generations, the echo boomer demographic now coming of age will be too small to fill all the expected openings, he argues. That will create more demand for older workers to stay on the job -- something baby boomers have said all along they intend to do.

"We're going to see a remarkable re-shaping of our labor force," Bluestone says. "The rate of labor force participation by the 55-plus population is going to be much higher, and older workers will represent a much higher percentage of the overall workforce."

Bluestone's report envisions nearly 75 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds working in 2018, far higher than the 65 percent who were working in 2008. Likewise, he thinks 30 percent of Americans age 65-74 could be working in 2018, much higher than the current rate of 25 percent.

Bluestone forecasts that the fast-growing encore job categories will include primary, secondary and special education teachers, registered nurses, home health aids, and medical assistants. You can find the full forecast of the fastest-growing jobs with the online version of this column at, along with links to the full report and companion studies on the prospects for jobs in health care, education and the emerging green economy.

I asked Bluestone how potential encore careerists should be thinking about getting the skills they need to get ready for the coming opportunities. "Think hard about the skill set that you have now, and how you can learn as much as possible about the new jobs that will be created," he said. "Ask yourself, 'How can I use my skills, and what changes do I need to make to fill a new job?'"

"If I'm a registered nurse and I've been an operating room nurse for 15 years, I'm not going to keep doing that because it's too strenuous and the hours are awful. But maybe I don't want to completely give up nursing and want to work in a nursing home or a senior center. What skill changes do I need?

"Or, say I'm an engineer and I've designed road beds for 30 years but I'm not going to keep doing that. Can I work with a science teacher or a math teacher to explain how I use math to do real things when it comes to road building?"

Numbers aside, Bluestone says own experience confirms his theory about the future workforce. "I just turned 65 and I have three jobs. I can't conceive of retiring in the next three or four years. We're living much longer in greater health and with less morbidity. There's no reason or desire to retire."


Career - Best Job Opportunities for 50-plus Americans

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