Many seniors are going to be employed past age 65, both for the money and because they enjoy working. But jobs aren't exactly easy to come by right now. The unemployment rate for those 55 and older was 6.9 percent in July, more than double what it was in December 2007.
That rate varies considerably by location, however. Baby boomers in towns with relatively vibrant economies will obviously have a much easier time finding work than those in cities where the going has been tough. To zero in on especially good places to launch a second career after stepping out of the first one, U.S. News applied its "Best Places to Retire" search tool powered by data from real estate information provider Onboard Informatics and looked for locales with below-average unemployment and a solid record of job creation over the past decade. We focused on spots with industries known for hiring older workers and considered the cost of living and such amenities as access to medical facilities and recreational opportunities.
You may be able to improve your odds of landing a new job, for example, if you're willing to relocate to a university town such as State College, Pa., or Ames, Iowa. Thanks to their solid economic base, college towns are known to weather economic recessions better than most places. Many also have plentiful affordable housing. And as a bonus, universities typically provide people in the surrounding community access to mind-expanding speakers, performances, and a rich range of sporting events.
Alternatively, cities with a large number of government jobs (such as Lincoln, Neb.) or positions in the healthcare industry (Lubbock, Texas) have generally been able to avoid the worst of the economic decline. Check out these 10 places to launch your second career:
Median home price: $149,750
Ames is a laid-back town that revolves around the happenings at Iowa State University and the schedules of its Cyclones sports teams. Unemployment was just 4.4 percent in 2009, with Iowa State employing around 9,000 people, pasta and sauce maker Barilla running its U.S. operations from a base here, and Post-it maker 3M maintaining a strong local presence as well. "The benefits that a university offers really can't be beat," says former journalist Jackie King, 57, who took a position as a program assistant in the university relations office at Iowa State two years ago. "A lot of my former jobs didn't have 401(k)s or a retirement program," she says. Biotech and agriculture round out the job market.
Beyond the financial, the perks of living and working in Ames include free access to Iowa State's ample library, theater, concerts, and other events. The city itself boasts 36 parks with miles of bike and walking trails. And there's that other lure of the Midwest: "Our first day [in town], a neighbor came over with cookies," says Craig McFarland, 55, a financial adviser who moved here with his family in 2006.
Median home price: $188,756
The centerpiece of this rural town is James Madison University and its 17,000 undergrads. It's hard to miss the purple-and-gold-clad students around town. Eastern Mennonite University is here as well.
Agriculture and JMU fuel the economy. Healthcare provider Centra Healthcare Solutions is also one of the region's major employers. Getting to Washington will take a two-hour drive, but Charlottesville (home of the University of Virginia) is just an hour away by car.
It's the area that surrounds Harrisonburg that often clinches the deal. The Blue Ridge Mountains, Skyline Drive, and the Shenandoah Valley, along with its namesake river, are a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts from skiers and spelunkers to hikers and kayakers. And the 1.8 million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forests extend along virtually the entire western edge of Virginia; Crabtree Falls Trail features one of the most impressive vertical-drop waterfalls east of the Mississippi River. Toss in the wineries and apple orchards tucked away on winding back-country roads, and it's an appealingly bucolic picture. Meanwhile, the downtown area is showing signs of new life, with an active farmers' market and a handful of hip coffee shops and ethnic restaurants.
Median home price: $126,000
As is true in most state capitals, government jobs are plentiful in Lincoln, which also has the advantage of being a university town. When it comes to the political climate, however, Lincoln parts ways with many of its academically oriented peers; Nebraska is known for being a hard-core conservative state.
You'd better be prepared to enjoy football—and more specifically the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers brand. The beloved Huskers dominate everything else during their season, when Memorial Stadium turns into the third-largest city in the state, locals say with a straight face. Otherwise this is a sleepy town, though one with its own airport and another nearby in Omaha for those who like to keep traveling as well as working. Getting stuck in traffic is very rare, unless a game has just let out.
Median home price: $117,494
When the last of their three children headed off to college, Cody Buck, now 58, and his wife, Starr, 53, decided they wanted to explore a new career together. Once they graduated from nursing school last year, the former banker and former owner of a childcare business had no problem landing jobs here in the city known in the '50s as home to Buddy Holly and his band. Moreover, they've both since been recruited by another hospital in Lubbock, whose low unemployment rate (5.3 percent in 2009) and cost of living have contributed to population growth of nearly 9 percent since 2000.
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"I think there's always going to be a job open for a good nurse," says Cody, who works three 12-hour shifts a week at UMC Health System, Texas Tech University's teaching hospital. He makes less money than he did as a banker but enjoys the work more. "I am moving to a stage in life where I am looking for some type of reward other than just financial," he says of combining a paycheck and a calling. "I think as people age, everybody has some kind of additional need to make some kind of contribution."
Lubbock residents enjoy a thriving university life, following the Texas Tech Red Raiders, attending concerts at the Buddy Holly Center in the old Fort Worth and Denver Railway station, and showing visitors around the American Wind Power Center. (On an exceptionally windy day, locals say, you have to lean far forward to make any headway in this city.) The Wind Power Center features 90 vintage windmills spread across 28 acres and a modern 240-foot wind turbine that provides power for the center.
Median home price: $180,000
Just two hours from Chicago as the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile rolls, Madison is a hot dog of a spot for a second phase of work life. Since the early 1990s, the state capital has undergone steady economic growth and even in recession boasts low unemployment (5.7 percent), a low crime rate, and a robust economy nurtured by the University of Wisconsin and its expanding research centers as well as state government jobs. High-tech and biotech ventures have created opportunity as well. And Oscar Mayer has been a Madison fixture for decades.
"The City of Four Lakes" (Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa) has earned a reputation as a kind of groovy "Berkeley of the Midwest," home of politically liberal voters and birthplace of the satirical newspaper the Onion. The University of Wisconsin Badgers sports teams help take the chill off the local winters. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who spent much of his childhood in Madison and briefly studied civil engineering at the university, is responsible for several local buildings. "Retiring baby boomers want to live in a vibrant and beautiful city that's both affordable and full of opportunities," says Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Alexander, who obviously believes Madison fits the bill.
Median home price: $118,920
Nicknamed "The Little Apple," Manhattan is best known as the home of Kansas State University, with its 23,000-plus students, and U.S. Army post Fort Riley, 8 miles west of the city. KSU is hands-down the largest employer in the area; Fort Riley, one of the nation's largest military installations, comes in second. The Department of Homeland Security recently selected Manhattan, which is tucked into the rolling Flint Hills region of northeastern Kansas at the junction of the Kansas and Big Blue rivers, as the site for a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The operation is expected to add 450 permanent jobs to the local economy. Mercy Regional Health Center, meanwhile, employs over 1,000 workers.
John Armbrust, 63, a retired Air Force colonel who served 25 years, found a second career in Manhattan's public sector as executive director of the Governor's Military Council. "Government jobs have made the area a little bit less vulnerable than many other places," he says.
Median home price: $121,500
Among U.S. metro areas with a population of at least 1 million, this state capital has the lowest business costs, in part because of tax incentives, according to KPMG's 2010 "Competitive Alternatives" analysis of 112 cities in 10 countries. It also has an unemployment rate of just 5.6 percent. "People can find jobs here, period," crows Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
Energy companies are big employers, and Tinker Air Force Base provides a steady stream of consulting work for retirees, particularly military folks. Plus, the University of Oklahoma Medical Center is spawning growth in healthcare jobs as well as bioscience start-ups.
Among workers in the country's 52 largest cities, Oklahoma City residents deal with the third-shortest commutes, according to the Census Bureau's most recent American Community Survey. Drivers spend an average of 21.35 minutes behind the wheel on their way to work, with only drivers in Rochester, N.Y., (20.37 minutes) and Buffalo-Niagara Falls (20.78) arriving quicker.
Joel Martin, 55, a retired Air Force colonel and now a senior staff fellow at the University of Oklahoma, moved from Denver with his wife Elizabeth, a book editor, six years ago after a 26-year military career in which he served as a meteorologist, hurricane hunter, and Air Force officer recruiter. Thanks to differences in the price of housing, fuel, and utilities, he says, "our estimates at the time were that the cost of living in the Oklahoma City area would be about 10 to 15 percent less than the Denver area. That has proven to be true, if not a bit conservative."
Martin's personal motivation was to return to his home state. "What I've found in OKC is not only a lower cost of living, but an increasing sophistication in what the community offers in return. I'm an avid Apple fan and was encouraged to find a new Apple store—and plenty of Starbucks."
Median home price: $180,000
The Richland region, which includes the nearby cities of Kennewick and Pasco, added 3,300 jobs to the local economy over the past year—more than any other metro area in the country.
One big reason: It's home to Washington State University-Tri-Cities and the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The city was developed by employees of Hanford Engineer Works, a company that helped produce the atomic bomb. Today, a number of companies and government agencies employing more than 11,000 people are working on a massive cleanup project at the Hanford site, where reactors were deployed for decades to produce plutonium. For example, Bechtel and the DOE are developing a cutting-edge waste treatment plant to convert hazardous waste to glass.
Richland sits on the Columbia River within easy reach of the Yakima and Snake rivers, which means boating and plenty of outdoor attractions. Homes are affordable, and the cost of living is below the national average.
Median home price: $122,130
If you're familiar with the famed Mayo Clinic, you already know much of what you need to know about Rochester, or "Med City." Mayo employs more than 30,000 people and there's no denying that healthcare dominates this town, which is a magnet for people from around the country seeking care. Older workers with healthcare and social assistance backgrounds will find that the fast-growing jobs include registered nurse, home health aide, and medical assistant. IBM, the town's second-biggest employer, has over 4,000 workers at its life sciences division.
Situated along the banks of the Zumbro River, Rochester has plenty of green space in its 3,500 acres of parkland. Or white space, depending on the time of year. The city averages 48 inches of snow annually.
Median home price: $242,000
Like ice cream? Berkey Creamery at Penn State is the largest university creamery in the nation. It's known for its products, which include sherbet and cheeses, and for launching the careers of none other than Ben and Jerry. Or maybe you're a rabid Nittany Lions fan considering the town so as to be sure of nabbing a prime seat at the football and basketball games.
But the opportunity to find work in an economy buoyed by a top-drawer university is the true carrot for those not yet ready to simply clock out. Penn State itself certainly has made an effort to appeal to such folks, boasting a retirement community on campus that gives residents access to free college classes and priority tickets to games. For culture buffs, the Penn State Center for the Performing Arts presents music, dance, and theater. And those who enjoy the great outdoors have plenty of nearby lakes and hiking trails to choose from.
On the other hand, State College can get a little quiet when school's out and when the football crowds leave town. But Philadelphia is 200 miles away, and it's only 140 miles to Pittsburgh.
Contributing Editor Kerry Hannon is the author of What’s Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job (Chronicle Books).