Promoting "encore" careers key to NC's future success

During this season of renewal, it’s fitting to celebrate the contributions of “encore” careers – and figure out how we can help cultivate and support them.

Named for people who are dedicating their skills and energy to creating a positive impact in the second half of their careers, encore careerists have the potential to be very influential to our economy and communities. According to the latest U.S. Census, there are a reported 78 million baby boomers who are now rapidly entering “retirement age.”

Yet many boomers are far from pouring all of their talent onto the golf course. In fact, a recent national study sponsored by MetLife Foundation and suggests that as many as nine million people already have chosen encore careers, putting their experience to work for the greater good. And another 31 million are interested in joining them, as they pursue personal meaning and a connection to something larger than themselves.

Part of the motivation for working longer is financially driven, with 41 percent reporting that their economic situation has worsened in the past three years. Yet the survey also found that people want to remain vital and active, particularly through using their skills in new ways to help others. This includes as many as 12 million potential “encore entrepreneurs” who are interested in starting their own businesses or nonprofit organizations to both generate income and make a positive social impact.

This trend represents a tremendous opportunity for our state. Rather than having a huge amount of skill and energy ride into the sunset (people over age 55 are estimated to make up more than one-quarter of our work force), how can we harness this talent for positive economic and social impact in North Carolina? There are significant opportunities for innovation within the private, academic, and policy sectors.

Intel, IBM show foresight

This fall, for example, computer chipmaker Intel recognized that many of its retirees are not really retiring. So it became the first company to offer Encore Fellowships to all of its retirement-eligible U.S. employees. The one-year fellowships, which carry a $25,000 stipend and a placement with a high-performing nonprofit organization, provide a stepping stone to a new career that redeploys immense business and technical skills into areas of need. Locally, IBM has offered a voluntary program that allows employees over 55 with a certain amount of experience to work 60 percent time while paying 70 percent – allowing those interested in transitioning into other work such as teaching or nonprofit work the chance to ease into it.

Imagine GSK, SAS, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, Fidelity, Cisco, Duke Energy, Wells Fargo, and other companies following Intel or IBM’s lead – helping recent retirees channel their energies into our most under-served communities.

Universities and colleges are also growing their offerings for people making career transitions, and smart policy can help people access these opportunities. For instance, we should consider offering more favorable treatment of college loans for adult learners or allow for tax-free individual savings plans that can be used for career transitions without compromising social security benefits. Another option is expanding the N.C. Senior Corps, which connects more than 8,500 volunteers serving 1,200 organizations across the state (Christopher serves on the N.C. Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, which oversees N.C. Senior Corps).

To help inspire others, we can also showcase the amazing work being done across our state. Each year, the’s Purpose Prize awards $100,000 each to five people nationally who are over 60 and using their passion and experience to solve tough social problems.

Seniors’ purpose renewed

Now in its seventh year, the Purpose Prize has been awarded to several social entrepreneurs in North Carolina. Take Mikki Sager. She transitioned as a midcareer administrative assistant to co-create the Resourceful Communities Program, which brings together multiple stakeholders to create jobs in rural North Carolina that protect the environment and move people out of poverty.

The Resourceful Communities Program, a division of the nonprofit Conservation Fund, has helped more than 10,000 community leaders establish 400 small businesses. The impact: 500 jobs created $40 million raised to help rural communities protect natural resources. One project includes a 200-mile canoe trail spanning five counties that has created 50 jobs and generates $400,000 in annual revenue.

Then there’s Durham-based Purpose Prize winner Donald Stedman. Inspired in part by his own grandson’s autism, he has channeled a career that included being chief pediatric psychologist at Duke University Medical Center and serving as dean of the school of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to launch New Voices, which helps young people with extreme mobility and communicative disabilities such as cerebral palsy and autism get good educations in public schools.

Since its launch, New Voices has trained more than 50 teachers in four school districts and is raising funds to start its own school.

There are dozens more of these stories and the potential for thousands of encore careers.

We should all be on our feet cheering and helping to encourage more people ready for their encore leverage their talents and serve our communities in new and impactful ways.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.organd followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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