Susan Parker spent roughly half her life working for one of Lancaster County’s largest fitness centers.
There, she climbed through the ranks to executive director. Now, at 53, she’s making a change and is halfway through the Water and Environmental Technology (WET) associate degree program at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.
“I worked at my other job for 27 years, which is a very, very long time,” Parker says. “I had just come to a point in my life where I thought, ‘I’m just going to go off the board here and do something totally different.’ ”
Parker joined the ranks of those who are changing careers after 50. And she’s excited — albeit still nervous — to be there in a moment when several factors have aligned in her favor.
“If … somebody might be looking at switching jobs or identifying a new career pathway to start on, now is probably one of the most optimal times,” says Thaddeus Stevens President Pedro Rivera.
The market is robust, Rivera says, noting that many students are getting hired before they even finish their programs. And employers — including those in the trade skills where there’s traditionally been a reputation of rigidity — are increasingly offering ways to work around schedules and life conditions, he says.
Gen Z is well known for an insistence on flexibility. Fortune magazine reported that a LinkedIn survey from January found that 72% of that generation — the eldest of whom were born in 1997 — claim to have left or considered leaving their job due to an inflexible work policy. But, while not as many, 59% of baby boomers surveyed did say the same thing, Forbes reports.
“One of the things that we’re hearing from those who are looking for flexibility is: You have grandparents … that need to drop a grandchild off to school or provide that system of support,” Rivera says. “That’s a flexibility that we’re starting to see many more of our employers start to take on.”
‘See what I can learn next’
In Ivomne Berengeres’ case, it’s an increasing flexibility in her own schedule that is prompting a new career. The 57-year-old native of the Dominican Republic worked as a sous-chef in New York years ago.
“Then I decided to become a mom. And that’s what I was doing, being a mom,” she says. “My daughter is now 17 and I decided to go back to school. Take a challenge. See what I can learn next.”
She plans to be a plumber. Mechanically inclined her whole life — be it car parts or pipes — she’s learned those kinds of skills over the years largely by trial and error. She’s upping her game by studying at Thaddeus Stevens.
“Finally I have the time and the opportunity to do this now,” Berengeres says. “I’m learning the proper way with the proper materials.”
She thinks being a woman entering the plumbing field may give her a bit of an edge in the hiring process given that makes her somewhat unique. But that remains to be seen, says Berengeres, who is, regardless, happy about the prospect of inspiring other women who might be hesitant to go a trade skill route.
As for age? She’s not sweating that. Though the bulk of her current classmates aren’t much older than her aspiring-lawyer daughter, Berengeres is confident when it comes to the physical rigors her intended profession involves.
“All my life I’ve worked hard and I like it. I don’t like to be sitting. I like the physical,” she says. “I know that maybe I won’t be able to carry 20 toilets a day. But maybe 10. Maybe 8.”
She’s expecting prospective employers will understand that. Not all statistics support that.
AARP published a piece this year that noted that according to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics available at the time, 36.1% of workers age 55 and older were long-term unemployed, meaning they had not been able to land a job in 27 weeks or more. The long-term unemployment rate for those between 16 and 54 was noticeably less at 23.7%.
“Unfortunately ageism is real in hiring,” says Dr. Dawn Graham in an email.
Graham’s resume includes time as a licensed psychologist, corporate recruiter and career director for the Executive MBA Program at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. She talks about dealing with red flags — which can include age — in her book, “Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers and Seize Success.”
Graham says that 2018 book has renewed relevance as the pandemic caused many to reevaluate their relationship with work.
“Also, with a tighter labor market in favor of job seekers, it is a great time to pursue a transition,” she says. “What’s still very important is spending time to narrow down your target and rebrand yourself on your resume, social media and interview responses so companies can see how your experience and transferable skills can help them achieve their goals.”
Graham says many companies are actively recruiting veterans leaving the military, welcoming “returners” (those who took years off to raise a family) and offering what are being called “mid-ternships” for mid-career switchers.
“Take advantage of these if they fit with your path,” says Graham, who also suggests checking out companies that have signed the AARP Employer Pledge Program, signaling that they welcome the 50-plus workforce. A search on aarp.org showed 99 such companies in Pennsylvania. The largest of those close to Lancaster County is Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Co. One Lancaster-based employer came up: Advanced Cooling Technologies Inc.
Age brings experience
Rivera said Thaddeus Stevens has hired a number of 50-plus employees in recent months.
“They’re amazing,” he says. “They bring really good skills sets and experience.”
Job seekers should highlight their experiences in addition to how they’ve achieved specific competencies that an industry is looking for, he says. Church treasurer? If your desired job deals at all in finance, be sure to work that in, he says.
“Far too often when we’re going to apply for a job, unfortunately we’re thinking very linear. It’s just about the job,” he says. “That’s not how this world works anymore. When an employer hires you they want you to be a part of their community. And it’s everything. It’s everything that you bring to the table … Use those (experiences) to answer the questions as to what the employer is looking for.”
That’s Parker’s plan.
“I know I have to … make my age an asset. Otherwise it’s just a liability,” she says. “I can’t say, ‘I know I’m 53 but please hire me anyway.’ I have to go into it saying, ‘Hey, I’m 53. I’ve got lots of experience.’ ”
She plans to emphasize all the hats she wore at the fitness center.
“I was front counter, I was back office, I hired, I fired, I did customer service out the ying-yang for a million years. I managed up. I managed down. I managed sideways,” she says. “There’s really no role that you can put me in that I won’t excel at. So use that to your advantage. Plus, I know all about water. By the way, I know how to do what you do.”
Parker says she’s impressed by Thaddeus Stevens’ career placement services and is taking full advantage. She’ll be stressing a couple of points to would-be workplaces, including the fact that since age 17 she was gainfully employed by two employers — one for nine years, the other 27.
“Loyalty is a thing for me,” she says. “It’s not uncommon for the younger generation to jump from job to job. If you hire me? I’m all yours until I’m ready to retire.”
That’s No. 1.
“No. 2? You don’t need to teach me how to be a grown-up,” she says. “I spent many years hiring people right out of school who didn’t know how to write a return address on an envelope. … Those kind of simple things that you could spend years teaching someone to do? I already know. I’m already a grown-up.”
Such realizations can, in some ways, make the idea of switching careers all the more daunting. Graham spends time in “Switchers” helping readers to evaluate whether a switch is something they actually want.
“Are you willing to trade control and comfort, perhaps just temporarily, for excitement and career satisfaction?” she writes. “It might mean working for someone junior to you. Having to perform menial tasks again. Or clocking in when you’re used to coming and going at will. It will also mean proving yourself and likely making mistakes as you’re learning, which can be tough things to swallow.”
Change brings challenges
Parker says there have been adjustments already and chuckles at the irony of the example she’s about to give.
“I had a hip replacement. I know. It’s true. Nine months before school started,” she says. “And when my hip starts aching, sometimes I just need to stand.”
She wouldn’t have thought twice in the gym world.
“If you just sort of flipped over and put your hands underneath your feet, people didn’t care,” she says. “It was totally normal to randomly start stretching in the middle of a meeting. And now it’s like, ‘Oooooh. Regular people don’t do this.’ ”
Getting back into math wasn’t easy either.
“The math lab was my second home and if it weren’t for Mrs. Barbara Starin, my tutor, I would have failed algebra and possibly chemistry,” she says. “She’s amazing.”
Parker jokes about many aspects of her ongoing career change journey. But there are some serious notes. Her husband died four years ago of pancreatic cancer. Parker got sober in July 2020.
“I went to rehab, got control of a drinking problem that had gotten out of control,” she says. Parker stayed at her fitness center job for about a year after that before deciding it was time for a change. She remembers telling her kids she had quit. She’d scrutinized the expression on the face of her then 16-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch basketball player son.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what is he going to say?’ He looked at me. His only words? ‘What are we going to eat?’ ” she says. “Sixteen-year-olds … Will there be food?”
Insurance money from her husband allowed Parker to hit pause and pivot.
“But that runs out. I couldn’t just forever not work,” Parker says. “That was part of the reason for a two-year program … I couldn’t go back to school and get a degree in French literature. It had to be a career path that would lead me to a job.”
She was drawn to the WET program, which she learned about when she took one son to a Thaddeus Stevens open house. She already has her bachelor’s in education from Millersville University. She likes that this associate degree can take her in multiple directions.
“You could work in a wastewater treatment plant. You can work in conservation. You could work in a company that does … underground pipes. You can work in a lab,” she says. “You can work anywhere not just in the state, not just in the country, but anywhere in the world. Everybody in the world drinks water and everybody in the world poops. It’s true. There’s even a book.”
Parker’s oldest son is 20. Her youngest is starting his senior year.
“I don’t have any real family here in Lancaster. My kids are going to want to start their lives. So my life is starting over again,” she says. “That’s another part of sobriety. I have a clear head now and I have a career path that means I can go anywhere in the world. Not that I’m that adventurous, like I’m going to move to Portugal. I’m not. But I could. I can go anywhere, do anything.”