By Brenda Owen

Daily Journal

When it becomes necessary for those over age 55 to return to the work force, many find themselves without skills to compete in today's job market. To meet this need some area public and private organizations are working together to offer a free training program to qualified senior citizens.

The Older Workers Literacy and Job Skills program at Itawamba Community College on the Tupelo campus is sponsored through the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) and Three Rivers Service Delivery Area. As the funding entity for JTPA, Three Rivers provides occupational skills training to adults and youth through area community colleges.

Larry Bishop, program coordinator for Three Rivers Service Delivery Area, said, "In cooperation with the Employment Training Division of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, Three Rivers Service Delivery Area focuses on improving the skills and promoting the economic self-sufficiency of those who before have lacked employment opportunities. The current Older Worker Literacy Program, funded at Itawamba Community College, is a unique example of this effort."

Enrollment in the program is free to qualified applicants, Bishop said. Residents of Calhoun, Chickasaw, Itawamba, Lafayette, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc or Union counties who are 55 years of age or older and meet the federal program guidelines are eligible, he said.

Mike Price, counselor for the ICC program, said applicants are screened by Mississippi Employment Security Commission (Job Service).

To enter the ICC program, each applicant is then interviewed by a counselor to assess his or her work history, educational background, reemployment goals, and commitment to work search, he said. Interest, aptitude and academic assessments are given as needed to pinpoint the applicant's study areas.

"This enables the counselor to suggest possible vocational options for the participant," Price said.

The counselor and applicant then work together to develop an individualized plan for training. Upon completion of training, a participant profile is developed and mailed to prospective interviewers for their review.

"Helping these people find a job is our job. Our curriculum is designed to meet the employment needs of the community by providing employment and retraining opportunities for older workers. This program helps senior citizens upgrade their skills and set individual goals. Then they take it from there."

Short term vocational training programs available to those who complete the Older Worker/Literacy program include computer training, nursing assistant, commercial food services, furniture assembly/foam fabrication, industrial upholstery, commercial truck driving, and more.

Danny Robbins, associate dean at ICC, said the courses are "open entry, open exit," meaning students can enroll in classes at any time throughout the year and complete their course at their own pace.

Alternative training

Peggy Mathis, area supervisor of employment and training for Green Thumb, Inc., found the ICC program an answer to the looming threat of government shutdown of her agency.

Green Thumb, Inc. is a senior community service employment program which has been returning seniors to the work force since 1965 when it was founded in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty."

"The program was originally designed to put older, rural Americans to work to beautify national parks and highways," Mathis said.

Over the years the program expanded to include placing senior citizens in other community services. Today, they tutor students, teach skilled trades and crafts, provide home health and day care, prepare and deliver meals for homebound persons, care for the disabled, and work as clerks, mechanics and laborers, working an average of 20 hours a week. Their salaries are paid, not by the companies or agencies they work for, but by the Green Thumb program.

There's just one problem, Mathis said, "We don't know how much longer we'll be in existence."

After 30 years, the program may be discontinued. In anticipation of the government shutting the program down, Mathis is scrambling to put the seniors in the Northeast Mississippi area Green Thumb program into paying jobs with private companies.

"Some of our seniors are being hired by the agencies they work for, but others will be left without a job if the program folds," Mathis said. "With the JTPA training program they are learning new skills that may help them get other jobs."

Starting over

One of the courses most popular with older workers is the computer training course headed by instructor Charlotte Faulkner.

"These older adults are excited about learning to operate computers," Faulkner said. "And I am surprised to find that they are not as intimidated by the computers as I expected them to be."

One student admitted that she was a little daunted, but added, "If my four-year-old granddaughter can do it, surely I can."

Students in the class have varying goals for themselves. Some simply want to tackle the computer and acquaint themselves with the modern technology. Others see the newly acquired skill as a route to returning to work.

Venita Alexander traveled the country working as an agent for an international real estate brokerage firm for 30 years before her declining health forced her to retire in 1988. Today, following a debilitating stroke two years ago, Alexander has a new lease on life a desire to return to work.

Through the Green Thumb program, Alexander has enrolled in the ICC class and hopes learning to operate a computer will refresh her typing prowess and sharpen her mental skills as well. The stroke affected her ability to remember details but Alexander said she has seen vast improvement in her memory since beginning the course.

"When I was just at home with nothing to do, I got so that I didn't care about anything," she said. "Now I have something to work toward and I would love to get a part-time desk job where I wouldn't have to travel or stand on my feet."

Faulkner said more older adults need to take advantage of the program to keep it active.

"We need more people to participate in the program," Faulkner said. "For people who want to return to work or who want a better job, but don't have the time or option to attend college, this program provides an excellent alternative."

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