Posted on 17 June 2009
By Mark Miller
When Jim Siegfried was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, he wanted to become a teacher. But there was a large surplus of teachers at the time and mentors advised him to consider a career elsewhere.
Siegfried chose a career in business and spent several decades working for large corporations in the food service industry. Later, he went to work for IBM in Texas as a manager in a customer support department, where he spent nine years.
But Siegfried had never given up on his classroom dreams. At age 51, he started planning for early retirement from IBM and began working toward a master’s degree in teaching. By 2005, he had completed a good deal of his coursework when IBM got interested in teaching, too.
IBM has a reputation for progressive thinking and programs aimed at helping employees transition to meaningful encore careers. An expected shortage of teachers in the coming decade led the company to create Transition to Teaching, a program that helps employees transition to second careers in teaching. The shortages are expected to be especially acute in math and sciences–areas where IBM’s workforce has no shortage of expertise.
Siegfried was accepted to the program, which meant $15,000 to offset his tuition, the strong support of supervisors and the freedom to take a leave of absence from work for student teaching. He was hired in the fall of 2007 to teach math at an elementary school in Arlington, Texas. There, he was assigned to work with a classroom of children who were struggling with a state math test that must be passed to graduate to the middle school level. In his first year, Siegfried helped 12 of his 15 students pass the exam.
“At IBM, 30 other people could do exactly what I did–I was easy to replace,” Siegfried says. “Teaching has changed a lot of that for me. Especially at the elementary level, the students get attached to you, and you have a yearlong plan for getting them on the road to success, so I hate to miss a single day. I have a sense of passion about my work–I wake up every day and want to do everything I can to go above and beyond. This is the job I was meant to do all along!”
A large number of teaching jobs are expected to open up in the next decade as a result of turnover and retirements. One estimate, from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, puts the number of job vacancies in the U.S. at 1.5 million. It’s a profession that appeals to the impulse for community service felt by many baby boomers approaching retirement from primary careers–although the hard work of training to teach and actually getting into the classroom can quickly dispel any romantic notions.
IBM’s program has recruited 86 U.S. employees so far in 19 states who are training to teach at different universities, and 14 graduates already are in classrooms. The company accepts candidates into its teaching program who’ve been with the company for at least 10 years, have been top performers and have bachelor’s degrees in math, science or a higher degree in a related field. They must also have some experience teaching, tutoring or volunteering in a school.
The program also is the model for the Encorps Teachers Program, an innovative program for midlife transitions to teaching in California. And IBM’s success with the teaching initiative has led it to expand its midlife career transition program to two other areas–non-profit organizations and government. Both fields are expected to experience large shortfalls of experienced workers in the years ahead due to retirement and growth. An estimated one-third of fulltime federal workers are projected to retire in the next five years; in the non-profit sector, retirement turnover and growth are expected to generate 640,000 senior-level positions over the next decade.