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Older Grads Must Tie Experiences to the Job at Hand

Selling their maturity and work ethic can set them apart from younger students.


The ivory tower of academe is taking on a decidedly gray cast these days as more older students return to campus.

When it comes time to look for post-degree employment, though, many of these older students are learning a harsh lesson. As far as some employers are concerned, these seasoned workers might as well be 22 and fresh from the frat house. It's square-one time, unless the graduate has experience specific to the employer's business, career experts said.

"Too frequently the older college graduates think they're a Cadillac with air conditioning and chrome wheels and everything else," said Patrick Scheetz, director of Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute, which each year publishes a much-followed survey of the job and salary prospects for new graduates. "When they try to convince the employers, [the employers] say, 'I only want a Chevy and I want to pay $18,000.' "

Older grads do have a lot going for them, career counselors said, particularly maturity and a proven work ethic. But that can be canceled out in the recruiter's mind by that nagging, if unspoken, question: "If you're so great, why aren't you still working there?"

When workers go back to school, their reasons may be economic or philosophic; they may be escaping from a corporate downsizing or searching for a new career to put more meaning into their lives. So many are doing it that the "nontraditional" student age 25 or older makes up nearly half of students at colleges and universities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.


If a midlife crisis has sent them back to college, a whole new crisis faces them at graduation: one of expectations.

Older grads, for example, frequently are shocked by the size of the salaries they are offered.

The salary survey by Scheetz found the average starting salary for new college graduates with bachelor's degrees from the 1995-96 class ranged from $20,154 for a journalism major to $41,182 for a chemical engineering major. The average starting salary for someone with a master's degree is $36,624; an MBA, $40,425; and a PhD, $40,873.

Many older workers are finding success with temporary firms, said William T. Mangum, president of Thomas Mangum Co., a Pasadena executive search firm. This is especially true for those over the age of 45, he said.

Mangum's company recently released a survey of job candidates that found "a fair number in the 50 [year old] age bracket and early 60s, who had gone back to school for additional training, are able to get positions on a temporary basis that will lead to full-time employment in many cases," he said. But it's not easy.

Older grads' years of life experience or work history can help.

"Being more mature, they are more sure of what they want to do and focus their energies more on what they want to go after," said Cheney-Rice.

How older graduates package themselves and their past experience is important, said Richard L. Knowdell, a San Jose career counselor and publisher of the Career Planning & Adult Development Network newsletter.

One client, who went back to school to become a lawyer, noted on her resume that she had previously worked in the legal department of a computer firm but did not list her job title: secretary. Another client, who got her master's degree after years out of the work force to raise eight children, gained valuable experience by doing volunteer work in her future profession.

"The key is to not let the potential employer see you as a trainee," Knowdell said.

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