Cancer has a way of tilting perspective.
Ask Stephen Joly.
After his discharge from the Army in 1975, Joly worked as a grease monkey for a Chrysler dealership, then joined his family's steel construction business a few years later when his grandfather died.
Then, in 1992 after a bout with melanoma, the former Army diesel mechanic chose to fulfill a dream. Living in Connecticut, he opened Performance Plus More, a shop for high-performance cars.
Three years ago, a blood condition again sideswiped Joly. He shuttered his dream shop and moved to Florida to focus on recovery. Once recovered, Joly wanted to — needed to — work again.
But the landscape had changed. The man who was a wizard with a wrench under the hood of pre-1990s model cars was befuddled by modern cars' electronics.
The Apopka man isn't the first — and certainly won't be the last — baby boomer to face extinction from a career-killing meteor called obsolescence.
"The need for skills-upgrade training continues to be important — to help both companies and their workers remain competitive and market-relevant in an increasingly global environment," says Andra Cornelius, Workforce Florida senior vice president of global talent innovation.
From 2000 to 2011, Workforce Florida grants helped upgrade more than 195,000 new and existing employees' skills. Currently, the agency is helping 558 employers boost the skills of some 40,000 workers.
For Joly, 57, the choice was clear: It was time to reboot his skill set.
"I realized I couldn't work for someone else if I didn't know anything about these new cars," he says.
Even in his shop, he routinely referred customers with newer cars to other shops and hired a kid who worked the computer system and would transfer invoices and specs to paper so Joly could read it.
Here's a guy who two years ago might have guessed that "Googling" was something against the law in most red states.
Joly needed a digital transfusion. That meant school.
"It was extremely intimidating," he says. "If somebody would have told me five years ago that I'd gone back to school, I would have said they're crazy."
After all, Joly never finished high school, so he first had to earn a GED. Try learning algebra on the wrong side of 50. GED in hand, he enrolled at the Orlando campus of Universal Technical Institute, which trains entry-level automotive technicians.
It was a splash of cold water for a guy who'd worked on cars more than twice as long as most of his classmates had been out of diapers.
Last month, Joly graduated from UTI. He's now ASE-certified as a master technician and in advanced diagnostics.
"Even though they don't know the wrench like us old guys, now I can compete with them," he says of the young-blood mechanics.
Right now, he's restoring a friend's '55 Chevy — a nostalgic taste of the old, before charging ahead into a new car-shop venture he's considering starting with a classmate.
The lesson for dislocated baby boomer, he says, is speeding ahead with skills-building.
"I don't see any other path if we older people are going to succeed in this society, if we're going to survive," he says. "Any way possible you can learn something to get yourself back into the work force, do it. Otherwise we're going to get pushed aside like the dinosaurs."
Indeed, this economy should come with a warning: Meteoric objects are closer than they appear.
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