An encore can be the culmination of a great performance. Careers can progress like this as well. Encore careers like Kathy Stevens’ are an example of what can be done with a lifetime of training and experience.

Kathy retired in 2017 after a career that included senior positions in the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research, U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, and General Electric Aviation. She has a Ph.D. in materials engineering, which means that she spent years creating and studying industrial materials, and solving problems when materials failed.

“My career is completely orthogonal to what I’m doing now,” Kathy says. These days, Kathy Stevens is a Dayton Foundation Del Mar Encore Fellow. The Encore program places highly skilled older adults with nonprofits facing significant challenges.

In her latest role, Kathy has been studying and finding a solution to the workforce shortage in personal care providers in the Dayton area. The field is very different, but her skills, creativity, and perspective are exactly what was needed.

Retirement is just the beginning

When she retired, Kathy took classes at University of Dayton Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning (UDOLLI). Learning new things is one of her passions and she took classes on a wide range of topics. One was on “creating your encore”, taught by Encore.org fellows. Kathy learned that the program was looking for a new round of fellows.

The program placed Kathy with the Dayton Area Agency on Aging (AAA). The Dayton area, like much of the nation, is facing a workforce shortage in personal care aides (PCAs). PCAs support older adults and people with disabilities living at home. The AAA needed someone to assess the workforce shortage among its provider network and identify solutions.

Kathy started by getting a full picture of the situation. First, she looked at data, interviewed experts, and researched how others were addressing this challenge. Next, she developed questions to ask PCA provider agencies, the PCAs themselves, and the consumers served by PCAs.

She knew the solution would come from “a combination of seeing what is out there in academics and in other communities, as well as talking to the actual people involved in our local area”. The problem was already large and then made larger by the pandemic. “One question that I had asked all providers was, if ten people came to you today, how many would you hire. Almost everyone said that they would hire them all. That was before the pandemic. Now, this shortage was suddenly worse.”

Creativity in a crisis

As the pandemic started, Kathy completed her research with virtual and phone meetings. “At the same time,” she says, “I was stuck at home and reading the news all the time. I started hearing about restaurant and retail industries shutting down during the pandemic.” Thus, a very creative idea was born.

“The people who work in hospitality and retail have great people skills and on-the-fly problem solving. Now, we have a huge number of people who are losing hours, and jobs, who have skills related to what a PCA does. Wouldn’t it be great to convince people that working as a PCA in the short term, and even in the long term, is a good idea? It’d be a win-win. It’s a flexible position that could fit with hospitality work, even when those jobs come back.”

Kathy proposed this to the AAA, who helped her find funding for the training, and reached out to the local restaurant association and other businesses. Once the program was ready for launch, Kathy spent much of summer doing outreach to find workers and publicize the program.

Starting in September 2020, Kathy is fielding requests for information and applications. In the first few weeks, 35 people have inquired and 5 have been accepted, with more in the works. They AAA will offer training through September 2021 and are off to a strong start.

Working for sustainable solutions

Like Kathy’s own move from engineer to workforce problem solver, changing from hospitality to personal care is less of a leap than it sounds. Many skills and talents are transferable. It is easier to train a person in a new industry when they have the necessary problem solving experience and people skills coming into it.

Kathy’s program addresses just part of the need for PCAs and she has plenty of ideas about where to go next. She’s talking with a community college apprentice program and the local job and family services internship program about working together. She wants to develop a healthcare career ladder with PCA as the first rung and a clear progression of formal training to nursing and other jobs.

Kathy is now in her second year as a Fellow. (Each Fellowship is one-year, renewable contract with the agency or nonprofit.) Along the way, she is documenting what she is doing, presenting to the AAA board, and working closely with the AAA leadership – in other words, building a program that can continue after her.

Bringing talent to the table

Noreen Willhelm Senior Encore Fellow

Noreen Willhelm (c) Andy Snow

“The Encore program addresses the question of how do we keep finding the “Kathys” of the world and getting them into the places where they are needed,” describes Noreen Willhelm, Senior Fellow Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative. Since 2016, the Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative has been working with nonprofits in the Dayton area to address significant, emerging issues. The program places highly skilled older adults with host organizations that recognize the value of experienced workers and need to solve a critical community concern.

People in Encore careers have foundational skills, ones they’ve developed over time in their careers and personal lives. The soft skills that took years to develop can be both invaluable and the hardest to recognize.

And, there’s a wealth of talent out there. “The applicants have blown me away every time,” says Noreen. “A third of them in the last round had terminal degrees – PhDs, JDs. Lots of them are women who acquired their degrees in their 40s and 50s. So much skill, experience, and education out there.”

The program is putting all this talent to good use. “Since July 2017, the Fellows have logged 19,733 hours, valued at $1.4 million dollars,” according to Noreen. (You can see just some of their accomplishments in The Dayton Foundation’s 2019 report on the Del Mar Fellows initiative.)

A win-win solution

Programs like the Encore Fellows can make a tremendous difference to both the community and retired professionals like Kathy. Like many people after a certain age, Kathy was ready to retire, but that doesn’t mean sitting around. People still want to stay engaged and give back. The fact that this is a part-time commitment is important, too. Kathy has a lot of other commitments and goals.

Nonprofits benefit from the skills and perspective Fellows bring. Almost everyone Kathy works with is younger than her and she thinks the mix of ages is good. “I think diversity of all kinds, like where people come from, their age, how they grew up . . . gives each a way of looking at a problem that is different.”

Gaining perspective takes time and experience. “When you get older, you learn to take things in stride. Each little incident doesn’t make as big of a difference, because you know that you have handled things like this before,” Kathy points out. “Perspective helps people not get wrapped around the axle on specific issues.”

Just as Kathy’s program creates a pathway between the hospitality and PCA workforces, Encore creates one between older professionals and nonprofits. Many people have transferable, relevant skills that can move across industries and occupations. However, many communities lack a way to connect the solution to the problem. As Kathy puts it, “it’s a “win-win”, if we can sort it out. Programs like the Del Mar Encore Fellows and examples like Kathy are creating a map of how to do that.

Read more about other older adults who are making a difference in their communities.

Sara Breindel, Changing the Narrative blogger