By Matt Youngquist, President of Career Horizons
Let’s face it. There’s a world of difference between going to school when you’re 21 years old and investing in education when you’re a bit farther along in life’s journey. Compared to somebody just starting out on their professional career path, middle-age adults often need to examine their training options with greater care, not only because of the frequent need to work around existing life/family/job obligations — but also because they tend to have fewer years ahead of them to recover from potential missteps and mistakes.
So while further education is a terrific idea for mid-career adults to consider, especially those seeking to change occupations or re-enter the workforce after significant time off, there are a number of due diligence questions I’d recommend asking before pulling the trigger on any given educational option:
1. Does this training program teach “hard skills” relevant in today’s job market?
While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, the majority of employers today don’t seem to be looking for people who have simply increased their “general competency level” in areas like communications, math, management, and critical thinking. Any liberal arts major like myself can tell you this. And any quick scan of the help-wanted ads reveals that companies today are desperately seeking folks who offer highly specialized skills — and can immediately make a corporate contribution based on their knowledge of how to solve a specific problem, perform a specialized task, or use a specific technology or tool. So if your primary goal of acquiring further education is to increase your job marketability, I’d put considerable weight on this factor and lean towards those programs that focus on actually teaching you how to do something — versus those that just educate you more about something.
2. Will the skills acquired stay in demand for the foreseeable future?
In general, it’s also a wise idea (for obvious reasons) to make sure the expertise you’re thinking about obtaining is on the way up — not the way down — in terms of market demand. One way to ascertain this? Pay a quick visit to the Indeed.com “Trends” page here (once the results come up, click on the ‘relative’ view option) where you can search on any certification, degree, or skill set and see how often it’s been asked for by employers over the past five years. For example, if you’re contemplating getting an MBA, you’ll note that there are 10% fewer job advertisements requesting this credential compared to five years ago. But if you look up qualifications like “business intelligence” or “regulatory compliance” or “web content management” you’ll note that the demand for these skills is up sharply in recent years. So take this data into consideration and make sure your training would have some legs to it, going forward.
3. What kinds of people typically enroll in this program?
In quizzing hundreds of my coaching clients who have acquired further education, as adults, I’ve been told time and time again that one of the most significant benefits of many programs today isn’t actually the curriculum itself. It’s the networking that takes place in terms of exposure to industry experts and the chance to work on collaborative projects with other students. So you might want to ask the school you’re considering what kinds of people typically enroll for the program you’ve got your eye on. Are they younger folks, just starting out in their careers? Or is the program more skewed to the needs of working adults, including people currently employed in the industry/profession in question, where the networking opportunities would hold much greater promise?
4. Do prior graduates feel this training was a good investment?
In years past, this would have been a difficult question to answer, since privacy concerns prevent schools from disclosing the contact information of people who have gone through their programs. Fast-forward to the modern world, however, and it’s a piece of cake to find people who have graduated from various institutions. They wear it on their sleeve — or more accurately, on their social media profiles. As one possibility, for example, you could jump on the LinkedIn.com networking website and run a search using relevant words (e.g. name of the certification or training program) in the “keywords” or “school” box of the People Search page. This should enable you, in most cases, to track down and solicit input from a few recent graduates. You might be surprised by what you learn from them, good or bad, in terms of how they perceive their educational investment after the fact!
5. Do employers and recruiters hold this training (and the institution providing it) in high regard?
Similiar to the above step, I’d also encourage serious professionals — contemplating a serious educational investment — to conduct an informal survey of relevant hiring managers and staffing professionals to see how they feel about the training coursework (and school) in question. Again, it’s relatively easy to turn such people up through LinkedIn and other online sources. Just be sure you tell them, up front, that you’re conducting career research — NOT hitting them up for a job. You won’t win ’em all, but many recruiters and managers will be happy to share their two cents around these issues if you ask politely and don’t seem to be angling for an immediate opportunity within their organization.
6. Does the training provider have a career center or provide job placement assistance of any kind?
While it’s unrealistic to expect educational institutions to “guarantee” you a job after completion of their course offerings, some schools go much farther than others to try and connect their graduates to available opportunities. Make sure to inquire as to whether any job placement or career assistance services are included as part of your enrollment — and whether the school takes active steps to connect graduates with members of its alumni network, as well.
7. Are there any shortcuts?
Last but not least, while many people (especially unemployed folks and return-to-the-workforce professionals) benefit most by enrolling in a formal learning environment, where they’ll have the chance to socialize with other students and learn new skills in a highly structured setting, keep in mind that there are also many inexpensive, informal ways to acquire new competencies, as well.
So before pulling the trigger on a spendy educational investment, ask yourself whether you’d have the self-discipline to enhance your marketable skills via books, blogs, distance learning programs, open-source coursework, or other potential self-study options. If you feel you really need the rigor and accountability that comes with classroom learning, more power to you. But at least weigh your alternatives — and ponder whether there might be a faster, cheaper route available for acquiring the knowledge in question!