Encore! comes to Fairfield to cross the career divide from corporate to nonprofit

By Reece Alvarez

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Among the casualties left in the wake of the 2008 recession were mature professionals over the age of 50 as a result of downsizing, layoffs or simply being replaced by a younger, cheaper employee.

That isn’t why Encore! Hartford, a University of Connecticut program founded in 2010 was created, but it has become a significant part of the program’s purpose.

“The idea came a little before the big recession hit,” said Encore! director David Garvey, who is also the director of UConn’s nonprofit leadership program.

“We looked it as, ‘How can we get some good human resources into the nonprofit sector?’” he said.

With 95 percent of the nearly 150 people who have taken the course since 2010 considered dislocated workers, the program has added reducing unemployment in seasoned professionals over the age of 50 to its mission.

Now the program, which accepts applicants for its four-month course to train former corporate employees for careers in the nonprofit sector, is building on six years of success and is looking for students to fill its new program in southern Connecticut, Encore! Fairfield County.

Working in partnership with several nonprofit organizations including Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, The WorkPlace, Career Resources, Inc., RYASAP, the United Ways of Greenwich, Western Connecticut and Coastal Fairfield County and the Connecticut Department of Labor, Encore provides a two-month transition education held within nonprofits and taught by veteran Fairfield County nonprofit practitioners and UConn faculty.

The program is capped with a two-month fellowship in a local nonprofit that produces resume-quality experience and vital networks that often lead to opportunities, according to Garvey.

The program has a 91 percent employment rate from 2010 to 2015, 75 percent of which have gone into the nonprofit and a retention rate of 98 percent in that sector, Garvey said.

Of the 91 percent, three-quarters find full-time work and the remainder work part time, at times by choice, he said.

The challenges facing an aging workforce are numerous, not to mention the difficulties that face those wanting to transition from for-profit to nonprofit industries.

“Retirement is not what it used to be,” said Nora Duncan, state director AARP Connecticut.

AARP is one of Encore’s partners and has a special relationship with the program through the financial assistance it provides for students who have difficulty managing the program’s $2,950 tuition.

“We have gotten more and more people over age 50 starting small businesses and we have people staying in the workforce well past 65 and into their 70s because they either want to, or they have to,” she said. “If you are over age 50 it usually takes about 33 percent longer to get back to work than the same equivalent person who is younger than you.”

Ageism and skepticism are problems on the part of nonprofits who can be leery of the lack of experience and perceived passion of former corporate employees attempting to transition to nonprofit work, said Garvey.

Steve Elson, an Encore! Hartford alumni from the class of 2013, felt the barrier of ageism as he attempted to rebound after being laid off in 2008 by his employer of 10 years, real estate developer Konover Development Corp. of Farmington.

Discovering a passion for working in affordable housing through temporary work with the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, but unable to find a permanent placement, Elson said the experience he gained at Encore! gave him the credibility to get his foot in the door.

He now works for the Stamford affordable housing nonprofit, New Neighborhoods Inc. as the director of housing development.

Another challenge facing corporate transplants seeking work in the nonprofit sector is compensation disparities, said Garvey.

“There are significant six-figure salaries at the senior levels on nonprofits, but for the people coming to us they are going to be looking at $50,000 to $80,000 coming in,” he said. “You are not going to come in as a CEO, though we do have two people who are CEOs now.”

Lisa Roger, a 2010 alumni, worked for a data communication company for 15 years and was a director of software.

She built a passion for nonprofit work through volunteering, but when the axe fell and she was in the job market she met resistance.

“Essentially everybody that looked at my resume and I spoke to didn’t want someone from the corporate sector and wanted someone with nonprofit experience,” she said. “Also with position as director of software engineering it was certainly a much bigger salary than the nonprofits paid and that scared them off as well.”

Like Elson, Roger said Encore! gave her the credibility to get past the interview and land her current role within the Norwalk Housing Authority.

She will mark six years at the job in October.

But challenges face nonprofits too, and they are coming around to the opportunities Encore’s professionals offer, said Duncan.

“The state budget obviously is at a close to all-time low in terms of the challenges it faces,” she said. “The federal and state government are cutting dollars and nonprofits are cutting services, so they need to be innovative because the money is not going to just fall off a tree.”

But as with Garvey, she is confident there is a beneficial crossroads between the breadth of experience a mature workforce has to offer and the needs of the overburdened nonprofit industry.

“It is incredibly important to have an intergenerational workforce whether you are nonprofit or for-profit,” she said. “Nonprofits are not going to survive and thrive if they don’t innovate and an intergenerational workforce is among the most crucial ways to bring innovation to an organization.”

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