Older workers age 55 or older in Grayson County have a new stepping stone for employment.

Older workers age 55 or older in Grayson County have a new stepping stone for employment.

Experience Works, a national nonprofit organization, has chosen Grayson County to be the site of a new nine-week program to provide older workers with training and employment opportunities. The organization was awarded a $275,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to implement the program in several new regions.

Once a week, students will come to class in the Eisenhower Room in the Texoma Council of Governments building in Sherman. The pilot program offers a blended learning program that combines virtual, instructor-led occupational training courses with computer-based and online training tools for participants.

"I think there’s a stigma around e-learning in older people," Experience Works CEO Sarah Biggers said. "We’re taking virtual and live classroom instruction, and we’re blending those to create this training program."

All participants will have access to a learning advisor, who will help them face challenges in the classroom or while they work at local agencies. Each participant will be assigned to a local agency to strengthen his or her skills while earning money from Experience Works for their time.

"A good transition is when a person will come in to get some experience at their host agency while we’re providing their wages for up to 21 hours per week," Biggers said. "They leave our program very confident and know the skills that employers are demanding. They already come with a wealth of knowledge, we’re just brushing it up and helping them see skills that they didn’t know that they already had."

Once Phyllis Thomas of Sherman turned 55 years old, she gave Experience Works a call for what she believes will be a life-changing opportunity. Thomas had worked at Texas Instruments for 20 years and had another seven years of professional experience, but she had been out of the workforce, spending her time working as a mother and caregiver, for 10 years until now.

Although the program is just underway, Thomas said the experience has already started to change her life.

"I went from not making any money for 10 years into having a little bit of income," Thomas said. "In the process, a lot of things have happened but it turned out a lot better and I feel better again."

Thomas said she has great expectations to have a more diversified set of skills for the office or any other job opportunity that may come her way. More than anything, she said she hopes to feel even better about herself and what she will accomplish in the nine-week class.

"Just because I’m 55 doesn’t mean that I’m ready to retire," Thomas said. "I still have 10 or 15 more years to go so I can make some more money and survive to pay for a house, buy a car and get things that you lose over the years that you thought that you might never get again."

Biggers said one of the common trends working with individuals who have been out of the workforce is that they have lost the understanding of their self-worth, because they begin to doubt themselves and their abilities.

"One of the biggest benefits is your taking individuals who have had wonderful life experiences. They’ve raised families, they’ve contributed, they’ve seen different administrations and all kinds of things that have happened in the world," Biggers said. "All we’re doing really is reminding them of their value, retooling them, giving them today’s workforce skills and then sending them back out into these communities feeling very empowered and understanding their value. That contribution just doesn’t affect the community, it begins to affect the whole county."

According to Biggers, there will be more people 65 and older than five-year-old and younger throughout the United States by 2017. When it comes to the workforce, she said, one-third of the population will be someone 55 or older by 2020.

Whether the country is ready or not, older workers are coming to the workforce, Biggers said. Older workers offer a different "wisdom" and "fortitude" that other generations do not possess, she said. Whenever she approaches local agencies about partnering with the program, Biggers said that she can guarantee three things: participants will come to work, will complete their work and teach the generation after them.

"When they leave and go to the employer, they have the skills, confidence and retain the job," Biggers said. "We’re able to enroll more people and the cycle just keeps going. We’re talking almost hundreds of millions of dollars for not just Grayson County but the country."

When considering a new region for the program, Biggers said Experience Works considers the regional staff, the participants enrolled in the program and the partners in the community. She said she felt Grayson County was a suitable location for the program to be launched.

Grayson College President Jeremy McMillen said the college was not only a partner with Experience Works but also a partner with older workers to further their education and careers. The American Association of Community Colleges, which includes Grayson College, has a Plus 50 Initiative that provides a grant for students 50 and over. McMillen said he would would like to extend that option to more members in the community.

"Investing in education transforms a community," McMillen said. "I’m excited that we have partnered with you all to make sure that we have those connections for (50 and older) students to be able to get to college and expand our impact."

McMillen said he looks forward to learning more about the Experience Works program. He said he hopes the program and Grayson College will work together to form a pipeline for older workers, not just students out of high school.

"I appreciate you stepping up to be apart of this program," McMillen said. "I hope you build momentum and move onto college or move onto the career that you aspire to and do great things in this county."

The blended learning program is expected to stay in Grayson because Biggers said she knows the blended learning program is sustainable and scalable. She said she hopes the program can double its classroom sizes and partnerships in Grayson County.

"The world is entering this paradigm shift, where we’re having more need than social agencies and the government can provide. Everything that we’re doing needs to continue," Biggers said. "Hopefully, we’ll be able to be a valuable asset to the local education centers, employers and partners here."