Quinsigamond President Luis Pedraja points out that at a community college, “you can build a credential and do it in a lot less time.”
Making the training process quick is particularly important for older workers, says Christopher Cain, grant project manager for engineering technology at St. Petersburg College. “When people are in that stage of their life, they just need to get something done and get going.”
A career that welcomes older workers
Other problems employees over 50 sometimes face, such as age discrimination, tend to be less of an issue in the manufacturing industry, according to people who work in the field and those who advocate for older workers. Manufacturers, they say, are just eager to fill jobs.
“I’ve seen employers be very flexible,” observes Chris DiPentima, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and a former division president of an aerospace company who ran manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and abroad.
“I never thought, I wonder what their health care will cost me compared to my other employees,” DiPentima says. “That was never a concern, and I’ve never heard any other manufacturer raise it. Quite honestly, I’ve seen the opposite.”
That’s because such things are offset by the experience that older workers bring to a sector that needs problem solvers, he and others say — who can fix a snag in the production process, without delays or interruptions.
“They have the hands-on experience, but they also have the attitude experience, which has become more and more important to manufacturers over the past decade,” DiPentima notes. Employers “are just trying to find the people who will come into work every day, be on time, work in teams.”
These are essentials that older workers know how to do, says Jeff Johnson, state director of AARP Florida. “What we hear from employers is that older workers, with more job experience, just have a better sense of what it means to be a good employee.”
But while manufacturers may have a high regard for people 50 and older, they have to overcome the negative perception that some prospective employees have of the manufacturing industry.
“I don’t think people think of manufacturing” as a career, French says. “It’s not in the forefront of their minds.”
Many people think of factories as dark, dirty and dingy, DiPentima adds. But in fact, he says, production facilities today are “lean, green and clean” and look more like computer centers than the clock-in, clock-out sweatshops of the past.
“The appetite is there, the need is there, and it’s really about shattering perceptions,” says Kara Cohen, community outreach and volunteer engagement manager for AARP Massachusetts.
Retirees can become teachers
As efforts to overcome these perceptions continue, endeavors to increase the supply of workers face yet another hurdle: not enough instructors.
That has led the AARP collaborations down a second path — namely, to recruit retired manufacturing professionals into classrooms to teach.
“The hardest thing to find is instructors who are qualified,” Cain says.
Quinsigamond and Mount Wachusett Community College, in Gardner, Massachusetts, are training six former advanced manufacturing workers to become instructors.
In Connecticut, AARP is helping recruit retirees as instructors for advanced manufacturing programs at both public and private colleges and universities. At one information session, recalls Nora Duncan, AARP Connecticut’s state director, “we had one guy who came who was perfect, and they were all fighting over him.”
Such people “make excellent instructors,” says Richard DuPont, director of community and campus relations for the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at Housatonic Community College in Connecticut. “They’re very comfortable in the careers they’ve had in manufacturing. Most have mentored people in the job and like to help other people to move forward in their lives.”
Bruce Fisher, a retired senior support technician at a company that makes parts for aerospace, medical and automotive clients, read about AARP’s efforts to fill that demand and ended up as a welding instructor and lab technician at private Goodwin University in East Hartford.
“I think what I bring to it is, first my expertise in the manufacturing field, but I also relate to these students as if I’m working with them in a shop,” says Fisher, 67.
Mike Edwards, who was a production supervisor in aerospace manufacturing, had left his job because of the coronavirus pandemic. Then he saw an AARP posting that led him to become an instructional coordinator at the Manufacturing Alliance Service Corp., a nonprofit training program in Waterbury, Connecticut.
“This is where people over 50 who are retired or are looking for a new phase in their life can come in and impart their years of knowledge of manufacturing processes and procedures and really provide some entry-level labor to a workforce that’s dying for labor right now,” Edwards, 53, says.
Back on the Quinsigamond campus, faculty show off the fabrication lab, or Fab Lab, where students use computer-assisted design, 3D printers, laser cutters, injection molding machines and other tools to make products displayed to passersby through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Students are studying precision measurement in another building, which is soon to be renovated and will also feature windows so that people outside can see the planned robotics and artificial intelligence labs.
“We think of it like we’re fishing,” Duerden says. “We want to get students in here.”
Jon Marcus is a contributing writer for AARP. He has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com and the Times (U.K.) Higher Education magazine, among other publications.