CHICAGO (Reuters) - Career change often begins with a jolting disruption, like a job loss, a health problem or family issues.
For Becky Loyacano, 57, change began with one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed Loyacano's home in Slidell, Louisiana in 2005, it also crushed the New Orleans native's work selling disability insurance.
"After Katrina, there was no job because there were no accounts to go call on," she says.
Following the storm, Loyacano moved twice, but despite her experience in insurance sales and as a buyer and manager for a sporting goods retailer, the recession made finding work a challenge - especially as an older worker.
Still, Loyacano's story has a happy ending, and highlights a solution to a critical issue facing the country: How to help older workers stay on the job.
Participating in a three-year initiative in 10 cities that offered strategies for supporting older workers, Loyacano found new work through a plan that placed workers in paid temporary internships. The program, which allowed workers to try new jobs while gaining experience and education, is a model that could be replicated in other parts of the country.
Working longer is one of the most effective ways to boost retirement income, reduces reliance on nest-egg funds, and allows more contributions to retirement accounts and higher monthly Social Security income through delayed filing. Indeed, staying employed longer will be more important if retirement benefits like Social Security and Medicare are reduced.
Meanwhile, the nation's labor force is getting grayer by the day, and more older Americans are also remaining employed.
Last year, 20 percent of workers were 55 or older, up from 12 percent in 1996, according to an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data by The Urban Institute released last week. And about 17.9 percent of people aged 65 and over were employed in 2011, up from 10.8 percent in 1985, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.
These workers face steep challenges in the labor market. Although those over 55 have enjoyed lower-than-average jobless rates (6.3 percent in April compared with an 8.1 percent national average), those who do lose their jobs are out of work much longer (60 weeks for workers over 55, compared with 38.5 weeks for younger workers).
Loyacano found help through an Indiana workforce agency that was participating in a national initiative. Funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Aging Workforce Initiative (AWI) issued a total of $10 million of grants to 10 non-profit and state-run workforce agencies to help them train older workers and connect them to jobs in high-growth, high-demand industries.
The AWIs also had technical assistance from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a non-profit organization that provides adults with learning assistance and career guidance.
The AWI projects, wrapping up this year, suggest there are practical ways to help older workers reboot their careers.
Some experimented with reverse job fairs, in which jobseekers are in the booths and employers make the rounds to interview them; others used websites to match mature jobseekers with prospective employers. Several trained "career navigators" to update older workers on current job-market realities.
Lafayette, Indiana-based Tecumseh Area Partnership (TAP), which aided Loyacano, combined its internship program with a "career transition hub" offering weekly job-hunting classes and support. The sessions included networking, online job hunting and using volunteer help to build resumes.
The TAP initiative has served more than 330 job seekers, largely in their late 50s or early 60s, and placed more than 60 percent in paid full or part-time jobs. The internship program has a 50 percent success rate.
TAP's internships target high-growth industries in the Lafayette area, including advanced manufacturing, information technology, health care and transportation logistics. The goal is to help older workers explore new career options, burnish their resumes and to ultimately land new positions.
"We've had some people who felt the need to change their careers, and some who already had worked in a given field but wanted to learn new skills," says Susan Perkins, TAP's strategic initiatives manager.
Loyacano decided to pursue a new career in health care and secured a grant to take classes in medical practice management. She found a valuable four-month paid internship at a local neurology practice, which later led to a full-time position.
For Loyacano, the neurology internship marked a critical turning point in her career transition.
"It was a great educational experience and confidence builder," she says. "Going into an internship, you don't know how you'll feel in a work environment."
All told, the average cost for placing each of 18 TAP interns worked out to $5,320. While that might sound steep, it's money well spent against the backdrop of a looming retirement-security crisis facing many baby boomers.
(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Editing by Chelsea Emery and Bernadette Baum