For many workers who have been displaced by the downturn, who have seen their salary or retirement income slashed or who fear the worst is yet to come, going back to school is looking more and more appealing.
They can see the handwriting on the wall, and some of it is compelling. Jobs in health care are expected to continue to increase. (Hospitals hired nearly 20,000 workers in the first half of 2009, in the depths of the recession.) Green-energy companies are making ambitious plans. Risk managers are needed in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Demand is high for engineers and scientists who have added management and business skills to their portfolios.
In response, community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, for-profit technical schools, professional organizations and everything in between are expanding their course offerings and retooling their curriculums.
“We are out in the trenches on a daily basis, meeting with local committees around work force development, attending a lot of local and national conferences, doing everything we can to try to be ground zero of impacting change for individuals looking to get new skills or upgrade or enhance their skills,” said James Whitten, the vice president for economic and work force development at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island.
The federal stimulus program and local government initiatives have helped fuel a surge of courses and of students, from Ivy League campuses to huge public universities. In some cases, tuition is reduced or subsidized.
For many people, investing in education or retraining starts with tough choices. Should a human resources manager in retailing who wants to move to health care seek a master’s degree in public health? Or would it suffice to take a series of short courses or workshops from a professional organization?
“Simply because you get a certificate doesn’t necessarily mean much to employers,” said Charles R. Hickox, dean of continuing education and outreach at Eastern Kentucky University and incoming vice president of the Association for Continuing Higher Education. “As a consumer you need to look at the quality of programming and how well it ties into the local economy.”
A good first step is to determine which industries and professions are expanding — and how well someone might fit into them.
Studies from government agencies and labor groups show that some of the greatest job growth is expected in health care, education and environment-related work. Education or re-education is crucial to many of the industries and professions expanding the most, the studies found.
Within each of these areas a range of positions is likely to be available.
To help workers figure out which positions and skill sets are most in demand and best for them, the Department of Labor maintains the O*Net Web site, which has a vast database of information about jobs within each industry. It shows which are in highest demand, what kind of training, work experience and education are typical for each position, the expected salary and other information. There is even a way to search for jobs by the skills they require (for example, skills of persuasion, knowledge of systems analysis, fluency in Microsoft Excel and so on).
Of course, if you’re uncomfortable with numbers and dread doing arithmetic, you probably shouldn’t apply for jobs in financial engineering or risk management, no matter how many jobs are expected to be available. Employer demand matters, but so do students’ aptitude, interests and priorities.
Yet many displaced workers may discover that their experience and skill sets can be transferable in ways they did not realize.
Financial analysts, for example, might find their expertise makes them valuable in the educational field, where math and science instructors are in short supply. Managers in communications may find their interpersonal skills useful in health care management.
In many industries, a prospect’s competence is the chief credential. In other industries, a degree or certification is also necessary, and may give applicants a leg up in a competitive labor market.
“Health care is so structured,” said Suri Duitch, director of adult and continuing education for the City University of New York. “There is a huge amount of oversight, and a lot of rules around qualifications. Same with education. Other fields are not that way, though.”
How do you know what kinds of credentials you do, or don’t, need?
Many universities with continuing education programs offer advice and guidance on the entry requirements for various professions. Always remember, though, that many institutions are trying to raise their enrollments and may be unrealistically optimistic about the labor markets or their own programs’ value to potential students.
“One thing people looking into more education can do is to talk to prospective employers and their human resources departments,” Dr. Hickox said. “Ask the H.R. reps: ‘Would a certificate in “whatever” be worthwhile? Would I be employable in your company?’ ”
While human resources representatives may be loath to endorse or criticize a particular program outright, they may be willing to say a particular school’s training program has proved to be more or less aligned with their company’s needs.
Employers may also disclose which training programs have established relationships with local companies.
“It’s critical to have this dialogue with local employers,” said Patricia Malone, director of corporate training and education at Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York. The university now does extensive research, she said, to make sure its career-related programs meet the needs of local employers and current students.
“Years ago we had an I.T. certification program, but we could never get job placement information about our graduates,” she said. “We took people with no background or skills in the area, and it turned out if they didn’t have the work experience to go along with their new certification, they spent $12,000 to $14,000 on the certification but couldn’t ever get placed in the job. It was a big waste of money for everyone.”
Local departments of labor can help guide students toward training resources. They can often answer questions, for example, about which students, if any, enrolled in training programs are still eligible to receive unemployment benefits, and which kinds of training programs qualify. Guidelines vary by state. Right now only a small percentage of benefit claimants are in training programs, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Labor department officials are also likely to be up to speed on which continuing and adult education programs are receiving government support.
“If I hadn’t raised my hand at the unemployment benefits orientation and asked what was available for people like me, I wouldn’t have known about this program,” said Anthony Cinalli, 48, a former finance industry professional who was recently hired by a small computer services firm. He found the position after completing a government-subsidized project management program at Stony Brook. “I also probably wouldn’t have a job today.”
Keeping track of where students end up in the job market is a good way to evaluate a program, continuing education professionals say.
“When looking at a specific institution, you want to know what’s their history,” said Ms. Duitch, at the City University of New York. “If there’s a certification exam at the end of the program, for example, how many people pass? What are their success rates?”
Many private institutions do not release this data even if they have it. Public institutions are more likely to disclose this information, in large part because their financing sources might require it.
A sense of what a program’s students are like — their experience, backgrounds, ages, educational attainment — can also be useful in determining whether a program is likely to be a comfortable fit.
Some programs cater to midcareer professionals. Others, like the bioscience and biotechnician program offered jointly by Hunter College and SUNY Downstate Medical Center, enroll mostly recent college graduates or college seniors. Some focus on full-time students; others, working adults.
Remember, too, that the best labor economists in the world may get their projections for the job market wrong, a program may turn out to not suit your needs and other expectations could fall flat.
Even so, retraining or taking courses demonstrates your initiative and helps provide an impressive answer when employers ask what you have been doing during your weeks, months or even years of unemployment.
“We try to help people make informed decisions,” said Anthony R. Davidson, dean of the division of programs in business at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “Sometimes you’ll get students who say something like, ‘I want to do a program in advanced Web technologies, and I really want to go into ballet.’ We try to help them realize that they need to rethink at least one of those statements to reach their goals.”